Aminah Nieves on Violent ‘1923’ Scenes and Sincere Indigenous Illustration

The Native American plotline in 1923, Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel, is without delay laborious to look at and laborious to look away from. That is as a result of it is a brutally trustworthy illustration of the unimaginable horrors that numerous tribal peoples endured at boarding colleges throughout North America, the place they had been compelled to desert their Native traditions and assimilate with Euro-American tradition. On the middle of this narrative is Teonna Rainwater, an unflinching, fearless teen performed by Indigenous actress Aminah Nieves.

Some critics have questioned if this depiction is unnecessarily graphic and violent, even dubbing it so-called “trauma porn.” However Nieves—together with Sheridan, her 1923 costars, and the present’s Indigenous cultural advisor, Yellowstone actor Mo Brings Loads—insists it is vital to indicate this actual, uncooked illustration. Brings Loads and Crow tribal elder Birdie Actual Chook created a nurturing setting for Nieves and her fellow Native actors on set, Nieves says, and educated them about tribal traditions, even educating them the way to converse the Crow language featured all through season 1.

Whereas it stays to be seen simply how Rainwater matches into the bigger Yellowstone universe, this a lot is evident: She’s a pressure to be reckoned with. Forward, Nieves talks with ELLE.com concerning the significance of these gut-wrenching scenes, staying grounded by way of trauma, and what lies forward for her character.

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Why had been you drawn to this position?

I used to be drawn to Teonna as a result of it is such an correct depiction of what has occurred to Indigenous communities throughout Turtle Island. At first, I used to be nervous to even do the audition. [There are] large footwear to fill, and I needed to get it proper. What in the end pushed me to do it was my mother, who was there supporting me each step of the way in which all through your entire audition and filming course of.

Actually, after I did my second audition tape of the scene the place I am killing Sister Mary, it wasn’t even as much as me anymore. It actually felt like one thing or another person was transferring by way of me, and I had no selection however to say sure. I want I may put into phrases the precise feeling, as a result of it is one thing I’ve by no means felt earlier than. It was sealed from that second on.

aminah nieves

Aminah Nieves

Courtesy of Aminah Nieves

Why is it vital to depict this Native American plotline so actually, even when it is laborious for audiences to look at?

Lots of people do not know what occurred or deny it occurred; some individuals even suppose Native People do not exist anymore. That is why it is so vital to painting our story as actually as we are able to, particularly on larger platforms like this, so individuals cannot run away from it anymore. They should see it. They should witness what has really occurred by individuals who they may share DNA with. The dialog must be opened up even additional, as a result of after the boarding colleges, the Sixties Scoop was taking place. If there’s something I can do to make clear this reality and assist create an area of therapeutic, I wish to try this.

Teonna has even opened up house for my circle of relatives to speak about this deeper, which has been such a blessing. My grandfather did not attend boarding faculty, however he did attend a college with an identical mentality. I’ve by no means heard him converse on something like this earlier than. He’s simply so proud and grateful, and he is defined to me how he skilled comparable conditions to what Teonna went by way of.

jennifer ehle as sister mary and aminah nieves as teonna of the paramount series 1923 photo cr emerson millerparamount © 2022 viacom international inc all rights reserved

Jennifer Ehle as Sister Mary and Aminah Nieves as Teonna in 1923.

Emerson Miller

What was it prefer to shoot these actually graphic, violent scenes?

It was troublesome. The group behind 1923 and the Yellowstone universe as a complete does a extremely unbelievable job of immersing you in that world, whether or not it’s the Dutton story or the Rainwater story. So after we’d present up daily to those elaborate units, we had been really transported.

The varsity scenes had been actually laborious, as a result of we had been surrounded by so many stunning Native youngsters, all wearing these uniforms. You are overcome with each emotion potential whenever you see them taking part in on the playground in between takes, as a result of the individuals who really attended these assimilation colleges did not get to play.

However on the identical time, it was secure. Our group did such an ideal job of holding house for us and permitting us to breathe and converse our voices when we have to. It was at all times a closed set, so it was solely the individuals who wanted to be there, which I actually appreciated. Mo Brings Loads and Birdie Actual Chook had been there daily from starting to finish, praying, giving us house, and ensuring we had been all good. So sure, it was laborious, however it was additionally such a grounded, secure house.

Whereas filming, how did you safeguard your self in opposition to experiencing trauma?

If I am being trustworthy, I did expertise lots of trauma transferring by way of Teonna. I had nervousness assaults on set some days. As a result of, like I mentioned earlier than, it was me in my physique transferring by way of it, however so many different individuals had been transferring by way of my physique on the identical time. There was a lot power percolating inside my vessel.

What actually helped me keep grounded was having Leenah Robinson (who performs Teonna’s cousin, Baapuxti) there with me. The forged and crew had been a spot of refuge for me, as had been Mo and Birdie. And I at all times had my household praying for me again dwelling. Additionally, it was actually vital for me to position my arms on the bottom daily earlier than and after filming, which helped me get the place I wanted to be and helped me get out of it, too.

leenah robinson as baapuxti and aminah nieves as teonna of the paramount series 1923 photo cr christopher saundersparamount © 2022 viacom international inc all rights reserved

On the set of 1923.

Christopher Saunders/Paramount Community

And Birdie taught you to talk Crow, proper?

Yeah, she’s unbelievable. She’s an award-winning beader, a storyteller, and a knowledge keeper. She’s your auntie—you understand what I am saying? She was there with me each second and introduced a lot life to all the pieces we did. Studying to talk Crow was a really particular course of, as a result of Native languages ​​are usually not as intact as they was due to assimilation. So to have the ability to converse the vast majority of our dialogue on this stunning Native language and figuring out that so many elders and kids are going to listen to their language spoken on TV is so vital to me. It was such an honor to be taught from Birdie, and I hope we did her and her household proud with their language.

Wanting again, is there a sure scene from season 1 that sticks with you?

There’s one scene I’ll bear in mind for the remainder of my life. In episode 2, Teonna is on the cafeteria desk and the nuns are swarming her. We did that scene loads, and it was actually laborious. At one level it felt like I used to be rolling with all of the nuns on high of me for 3 minutes straight. They yelled minimize, and all I heard was Leenah screaming, “Get off of her! Get off of her! within the again. The nuns had been already off of me, however in that second we had been experiencing trauma in actual time. I felt like I blacked out. The following factor I do know, Leenah is true beside me holding my hand and serving to me up. I used to be like, “Rattling, that is my sister.” I used to be so joyful to have her with me by way of that course of, as a result of I do not suppose I may have finished it with out her. That was a extremely laborious day for each of us. Afterward, we simply sat collectively and cried.

However on the flip aspect, there have been so many nice moments, too. We might play on the swings daily—Leenah, the extras, even Sebastian Roché (who performs Catholic priest Father Renaud). We might simply goof round and play tag. So despite the fact that we’re transferring by way of these actually laborious moments and bringing all this power to the floor, we nonetheless discovered these moments to be youngsters once more. That was crucial for everybody.

aminah nieves as teonna of the paramount series 1923 photo cr emerson millerparamount © 2022 viacom international inc all rights reserved

Nieves as Teonna in 1923.

Emerson Miller

What was it prefer to collaborate with Taylor Sheridan on this character?

Taylor is unbelievable. When it got here to being on set, there have been some issues blocking-wise that wanted to be tweaked, which Michael Spears (who performs Teonna’s dad, Runs His Horse), Leenah, and I voiced loads. I do know Mo and Birdie had lots of say because the cultural advisors as effectively. We simply needed to verify all of it felt very trustworthy.

For instance, there’s one scene in episode Eight the place Pete, Teonna’s dad, and Teonna all run out, and so they had Teonna operating out final, so she was within the again. However then I noticed Teonna would not be final; she’s damage, she’s drained, she’s been alone for weeks. She can be within the center, and so they’d be defending her. I introduced this up, and it received modified proper on the spot. Everybody was so open to those options, which was very nice.

What do you suppose lies forward for Teonna in season 2, particularly as a part of the bigger Yellowstone universe?

In episode 8, we lastly received to see Teonna be a child for as soon as. I actually wish to see extra of her feeling secure sufficient to be a baby in season 2. I do know the present is about within the 1900s so it is unlikely that that is going to be the case, as a result of it is unlikely nonetheless now in 2023. However I would like her to seek out some peace and fall in love with herself.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching Teonna’s journey?

I hope viewers really feel compelled to coach themselves about what has really occurred to the individuals of Turtle Island. I believe when somebody is genuinely inquisitive about a difficulty slightly than compelled to study it, they achieve extra perception and have extra compassion. On a grander scale, I hope this offers the world the chance to talk extra extensively about what has occurred to Native peoples, as a result of that is so widespread. I hope Teonna’s story helps open up extra conversations about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.

Headshot of Kate Nelson

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning author and editor residing in Minneapolis.

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