The Native American plotline in 1923, Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel, is without delay hard to observe and hard to look away from. That’s since it’s a brutally honest representation of the unimaginable horrors that countless tribal peoples endured at boarding schools across North America, where they were forced to desert their Native traditions and assimilate with Euro-American culture. At the middle of this narrative is Teonna Rainwater, an unflinching, fearless teen played by Indigenous actress Aminah Nieves.
Some critics have questioned if this depiction is unnecessarily graphic and violent, even dubbing it so-called “trauma porn.” But Nieves—together with Sheridan, her 1923 costars, and the show’s Indigenous cultural consultant, Yellowstone actor Mo Brings Plenty—insists it’s necessary to point out this real, raw representation. Brings Plenty and Crow tribal elder Birdie Real Bird created a nurturing environment for Nieves and her fellow Native actors on set, Nieves says, and educated them about tribal traditions, even teaching them the way to speak the Crow language featured throughout season 1.
While it stays to be seen just how Rainwater suits into the larger Yellowstone universe, this much is evident: She’s a force to be reckoned with. Ahead, Nieves talks with ELLE.com concerning the significance of those gut-wrenching scenes, staying grounded through trauma, and what lies ahead for her character.
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Why were you drawn to this role?
I used to be drawn to Teonna since it’s such an accurate depiction of what has happened to Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. At first, I used to be nervous to even do the audition. [There are] big shoes to fill, and I desired to get it right. What ultimately pushed me to do it was my mom, who was there supporting me every step of the way in which throughout the complete audition and filming process.
Truthfully, after I did my second audition tape of the scene where I’m killing Sister Mary, it wasn’t even as much as me anymore. It really felt like something or another person was moving through me, and I had no alternative but to say yes. I wish I could put into words the precise feeling, since it’s something I’ve never felt before. It was sealed from that moment on.
Courtesy Aminah Nieves
Why is it necessary to depict this Native American plotline so truthfully, even when it’s hard for audiences to observe?
A variety of people don’t know what happened or deny it happened; some people even think Native Americans don’t exist anymore. That’s why it’s so necessary to portray our story as truthfully as we will, especially on greater platforms like this, so people can’t run away from it anymore. They should see it. They should witness what has actually happened by individuals who they may share DNA with. The conversation must be opened up even further, because after the boarding schools, the Sixties Scoop was happening. If there’s anything I can do to make clear this truth and help create an area of healing, I need to try this.
Teonna has even opened up space for my circle of relatives to speak about this deeper, which has been such a blessing. My grandfather didn’t attend boarding school, but he did attend a faculty with an analogous mentality. I’ve never heard him speak on anything like this before. He’s just so proud and thankful, and he’s explained to me how he experienced similar situations to what Teonna went through.
Jennifer Ehle as Sister Mary and Aminah Nieves as Teonna in 1923.
What was it prefer to shoot those really graphic, violent scenes?
It was difficult. The team behind 1923 and the Yellowstone universe as an entire does a very incredible job of immersing you in that world, whether it’s the Dutton story or the Rainwater story. So once we’d show up each day to those elaborate sets, we were truly transported.
The varsity scenes were really hard, because we were surrounded by so many beautiful Native children, all wearing these uniforms. You’re overcome with every emotion possible whenever you see them playing on the playground in between takes, since the individuals who actually attended these assimilation schools didn’t get to play.
But at the identical time, it was secure. Our team did such an excellent job of holding space for us and allowing us to breathe and speak our voices when we want to. It was all the time a closed set, so it was only the individuals who needed to be there, which I actually appreciated. Mo Brings Plenty and Birdie Real Bird were there each day from starting to finish, praying, giving us space, and ensuring we were all good. So yes, it was hard, nevertheless it was also such a grounded, secure space.
While filming, how did you safeguard yourself against experiencing trauma?
If I’m being honest, I did experience lots of trauma moving through Teonna. I had anxiety attacks on set some days. Because, like I said before, it was me in my body moving through it, but additionally so many other people were moving through my body at the identical time. There was a lot energy percolating inside my vessel.
What really helped me stay grounded was having Leenah Robinson (who plays Teonna’s cousin, Baapuxti) there with me. The solid and crew were a spot of refuge for me, as were Mo and Birdie. And I all the time had my family praying for me back home. Also, it was really necessary for me to put my hands on the bottom each day before and after filming, which helped me get where I needed to be and helped me get out of it, too.
On the set of 1923.
Christopher Saunders/Paramount Network
And Birdie taught you to talk Crow, right?
Yeah, she’s incredible. She’s an award-winning beader, a storyteller, and a wisdom keeper. She’s your auntie—you understand what I’m saying? She was there with me every second and brought a lot life to the whole lot we did. Learning to talk Crow was a really special process, because Native languages are usually not as intact as they was once due to assimilation. So to give you the chance to talk the vast majority of our dialogue on this beautiful Native language and knowing that so many elders and kids are going to listen to their language spoken on TV is so necessary to me. It was such an honor to learn from Birdie, and I hope we did her and her family proud with their language.
Looking back, is there a certain scene from season 1 that sticks with you?
There’s one scene I’ll remember for the remaining of my life. In episode 2, Teonna is on the cafeteria table and the nuns are swarming her. We did that scene quite a bit, and it was really hard. At one point it felt like I used to be rolling with all of the nuns on top of me for 3 minutes straight. They yelled cut, and all I heard was Leenah screaming, “Get off of her! Get off of her!” within the back. The nuns were already off of me, but in that moment, we were experiencing trauma in real time. I felt like I blacked out. The following thing I do know, Leenah is true beside me holding my hand and helping me up. I used to be like, “Rattling, that is my sister.” I used to be so joyful to have her with me through that process, because I don’t think I could have done it without her. That was a very hard day for each of us. Afterward, we just sat together and cried.
But on the flip side, there have been so many great moments, too. We might play on the swings each day—Leenah, the extras, even Sebastian Roché (who plays Catholic priest Father Renaud). We might just goof around and play tag. So regardless that we’re moving through these really hard moments and bringing all this energy to the surface, we still found these moments to be children again. That was very necessary for everybody.
Nieves as Teonna in 1923.
What was it prefer to collaborate with Taylor Sheridan on this character?
Taylor is incredible. When it got here to being on set, there have been some things blocking-wise that needed to be tweaked, which Michael Spears (who plays Teonna’s dad, Runs His Horse), Leenah, and I voiced quite a bit. I do know Mo and Birdie had lots of say because the cultural advisors as well. We just desired to be certain all of it felt very honest.
For instance, there’s one scene in episode 8 where Pete, Teonna’s dad, and Teonna all run out, and so they had Teonna running out last, so she was within the back. But then I noticed Teonna wouldn’t be last; she’s hurt, she’s drained, she’s been alone for weeks. She could be in the center, and so they’d be protecting her. I brought this up, and it got modified right on the spot. Everyone was so open to those suggestions, which was very nice.
What do you think that lies ahead for Teonna in season 2, especially as a part of the larger Yellowstone universe?
In episode 8, we finally got to see Teonna be a child for once. I actually need to see more of her feeling secure enough to be a baby in season 2. I do know the show is ready within the 1900s so it’s unlikely that that’s going to be the case, since it’s unlikely still now in 2023. But I need her to search out some peace and fall in love with herself.
What do you hope viewers take away from watching Teonna’s journey?
I hope viewers feel compelled to teach themselves about what has actually happened to the people of Turtle Island. I believe when someone is genuinely inquisitive about a problem quite than forced to study it, they gain more insight and have more compassion. On a grander scale, I hope this offers the world the chance to talk more widely about what has happened to Native peoples, because that is so widespread. I hope Teonna’s story helps open up more conversations about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning author and editor living in Minneapolis.