Alfred Calma was 4 years old when the police snatched him from his mother, never to live with her again. Joyce Napurrula-Schroeder was not quite 2 when it happened to her. Luke Morcom was a newborn, barely a week on this earth.
All had the bad luck of being born “half caste” during Australia’s disastrous experiment with forced assimilation. For 60 years, until 1970, government policies rounded up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children deemed to be part-white and sent them to boarding schools and church-run missions. Like the Canadian First Nations’ and the United States’ Indian boarding schools that served as its model, Australia’s program aimed to beat out all traces of indigenous culture, often literally. Run more like penal colonies than schools, these institutions scarred their young wards and their communities for life.
Decades later, when Matthew Sherwood, a Canadian photojournalist, began documenting survivors of the boarding schools — the “stolen generations,” as Australia calls them — they unleashed hellish memories where neglect was the best it ever got.
As Alfred Calma, born in 1953 of Woolwonga descent, told him, he was sexually abused repeatedly by several people over the course of his years at a Catholic mission. (At 14, he was shipped off to a cattle station to work as a stockman, a typical, dead-end job given to boys aging out of the system.) Nicholas Flowers, born in 1952 of Eastern Arrernte descent, was stripped naked and flogged with a sewing machine belt. Zita Wallace, an Eastern Arrernte born in 1939, recalled beatings prompted by a slip of the mother tongue. “They flogged us from Day 1, to stop us speaking our language,” she told Mr. Sherwood. “They told us we were pagans and that we were…