‘1923’ Star Aminah Nieves On Show’s Brutality Toward Indigenous People: “I Felt Like Sometimes, I Wasn’t Even In Control Of My Body”

‘1923’ Star Aminah Nieves On Show’s Brutality Toward Indigenous People: “I Felt Like Sometimes, I Wasn’t Even In Control Of My Body”

SPOILER ALERT! This story contains plot points from episode seven of 1923 on Paramount+.

Anyone who tuned in to Taylor Sheridan’s latest Yellowstone prequel expecting wall-to-wall storytelling about the Dutton family was in for a shock: half of the story has been devoted to the horrific treatment of young indigenous women in a boarding school run by Catholic nuns and a very sadistic priest.

One of those girls is played by Aminah Nieves, an indigenous actress who landed the very important role of Teonna Rainwater — a veritable prisoner of the Catholics (and ancestor of Gil Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater, who we eventually meet in Yellowstone) who can dish it out as much as she can take it. Teonna finally escapes the clutches of her captors but trouble continues to follow her.

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Here, Nieves talks affectionately about meeting Taylor “Tay Tay” Sheridan and how important it was for her to accept the role.

DEADLINE This has definitely been a lesson in history for some, learning how indigenous people were treated by the colonizing Catholic Church. This horrific chapter from our country’s past is rarely depicted on television – the way missionaries beat and dehumanized Native peoples in these so-called schools.

AMINAH NIEVES For me it wasn’t the same. I am aware what happened to our indigenous peoples. My family made it clear to voice and educate us growing up. It wasn’t the first time for me to read it. Those traumas are kind of embedded with you. They get passed through your parents, through the womb, and they connect to you. But I did even more research than I already knew. I talked to a bunch of different indigenous communities.

DEADLINE How did you first land this role?

NIEVES I love Tay Tay! I was not aware of the Taylor Sheridan universe before. It happens the way it always happens, you get it through your team. I read it and was emailing my manager like, ‘I don’t know man. I don’t know if I should do this. It’s just heavy and triggering.’ My manager was so supportive and said, ‘you know what? I support anything you do so whatever decision you make is a good one.’ And then my mom is my reader for everything. We talked about it a lot. I did the audition the day it was due because I waited so long. I was scared. My mom was like, ‘Aminah, you have to do this, not just for you, it’s for us. It’s for our communities and for all indigenous peoples across the world.’

DEADLINE What scared you the most about doing it?

NIEVES We did five scenes for the audition from the first three episodes. They were heavy, heavy scenes. It was really hard to move through, because you feel everything. I knew it wasn’t just going to be me feeling it. I knew that there were gonna be ancestors flowing through me. That’s exactly what happened when I got to set. I felt like sometimes, I wasn’t even in control of my body, you know? It felt like, ‘Aminah, someone else is here. Let them take over for a second.’ I was scared a lot. I wanted to make sure I was honoring every single human, every single family member, my grandparents, my aunties, my mom, my dad and then all of the communities. I’m so happy that I’m here and doing it and being a voice.

DEADLINE Where did you shoot all of your scenes in the school and beyond?

NIEVES Six months in Montana and around Butte with a Walmart. It was great. We probably went to Walmart twice a day to feel something.

DEADLINE So what was it like doing those scenes with Jennifer Ehle [Sister Mary], who was the one constantly beating your character? Was a lot of choreography involved?

NIEVES We had an amazing stunt crew, and Jennifer is just an incredible talent. I bow to her. She was so tender and kind, moving through everything that we did. We talked a little bit before each scene, but typically they would just give us the stunt choreography in like 10 minutes. Then we’d be, alright, let’s shoot it. You kind of have to separate yourself a little bit from what’s happening because it’s a lot of physical and spiritual energy. We always made sure to be with one another. Can I tell you a story? I believe it was in episode two or three, where all the nuns were on top of me in the lunchroom for somewhere up to three minutes, at one point. They yell cut and I hear Leenah Robinson, who plays my cousin Baapuxti, scream ‘get off of her!’ They were already off me. But when you are put in these situations, she was just scared. You’re witnessing all the traumas at once. [Nieves begins to cry]. I think that was a life changing moment for me because I knew she was my sister for life. She’s everything to me, and an incredible talent too.

DEADLINE When you got those initial scripts, did you ask Tay Tay if you there would be a payoff for your character? That you were going to be able to fight back?

NIEVES We did have a talk. I wanted to honor her deeply and didn’t want the public to see her as someone who they can take advantage of. He reassured me that she will get hers and she will be victorious.

DEADLINE It’s very violent, but I took glee in watching you beat the sisters to death.

NIEVES Oh girl, yeah. That was the hardest scene for Jennifer and I to do together. For Teonna, it wasn’t joyous for her. It was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do because she sees Sister Mary as an abuser. But it’s just like what she told her: ‘I am the land, no one who is the land is killing you.’ In that moment she’s sitting there with her thinking, I wish she could have understood that we are way similar than Sister Mary thought. We share the same soil. We walk the same.

DEADLINE So are we going to see your character get happy anytime soon?

NIEVES Let’s pray. I don’t want to spoil anything!

DEADLINE Can you say if you will, if at all, join the world of the Duttons?

NIEVES I have no clue. I want to know, too. Maybe we should write Tay Tay together.

DEADLINE When you found out there would be a second season, did you immediately call to find out whether your character would live to see it?

NIEVES We were all like that. Every single person in the cast was like, what is happening? What’s going on? But I have faith that Teonna will make it to season two. We don’t know anything happening in season two at all. He hasn’t written anything yet.

DEADLINE What can we expect for Teonna going in to next Sunday’s finale?

NIEVES Have your box of tissues at hand. Episode eight really destroyed me.

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