Not a single character had it easy in 1923‘s grueling first season. But while various member of the Dutton clan experienced moments of joy interspersed among the death and heartbreak of life on the Montana plains, Teonna Rainwater got little reprieve.
We met the Native American teen when she was a student held against her will at a Catholic boarding school. All of the students were indigenous children who’d been taken from their families and forced to abandon their language and culture in an attempt at assimilation. Teonna made the choice to run away after repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of the nuns and priests who ran the facility. On the run and hunted after killing Sister Mary, Teonna spent the entire season in peril; the only temporary respite came in the finale, when her father, Runs His Horse, and friend Pete Plenty Clouds caught up to her and were able to provide some protection and comfort.
TVLine recently caught up with Aminah Nieves, whose Teonna is a forebear of Yellowstone‘s Chief Thomas Rainwater, to process the harrowing first season. Read on for her thoughts/hopes for Teonna in Season 2 and more.
TVLINE | I’ve seen and heard a lot of people discussing the show and saying that they didn’t know about indigenous children being taken from their families and sent to boarding schools like the one Teonna was in. How does that hit you as someone who did know about that?
The government does a really good at keeping things hidden that they don’t want the world to know, and it’s crazy. But for me, I thought about all indigenous communities as a whole, and not just here on Turtle Island, but around the world… When I first read those [audition] pages and then I got the script it just hits you all at once. Because you don’t normally see indigenous stories being told so truthfully, you know? And so honestly. It hurt reading it at first. It brings up a lot of emotions, and it brings up a lot of fear and just, everything. But I think it’s very important, and I’m so blessed that I’m able to share our stories and be here, really.
TVLINE | Teonna has some heavy scenes in the first season — all of her scenes, really. Talk to me about how you transitioned out of those feelings, being in that state of mind when you were done for the day.
Everything we felt and everything you see is so real, and our body instinctually is living in it. So, when Leenah [Robinson, who plays Baapuxti] was here with me, we would talk about it, because you would be in the same little car on the way home. So, we’d drop Sebastian [Roché, who plays Father Renaud] off, and then we’d drop Jennifer [Ehle, who plays Sister Mary] off and Kerry [O’Malley, who plays Sister Alice], and then it’d just be Leenah and I. We’d kind of just have a really big hug together and be like, “We did it. Now, let’s just rest and go to sleep…” It’s hard, though. It’s hard finding that dance sometimes, but we were very supported, for sure. I mean, I leaned on Leenah and the rest of the cast so heavily, and they were there every time.
TVLINE | Even as someone who is very aware that stories on TV are not real, I’m having a really hard time processing the idea of you and Sebastian in the same car, joking around at the end of a day.
Yeah. [Laughs] Dude, I love that man with my whole heart. He’s so cool. He’s so sweet. But yeah, I can see how it is weird. I mean, my parents are still, like, I’ll be on the phone with Sebastian or something and my Dad’s like, “Oh, hell no!” [Laughs]
TVLINE | I’ve seen you mention that the main form of entertainment, when you weren’t shooting, was going to a nearby Walmart. I need to know details. Were you getting Slurpees? Running around the aisles?
[Laughs] Oh, my gosh. If you would see our photos in Walmart, we would just be trying different things on, sunglasses, hats. We would be running up and down aisles. I mean, all we had to do [for fun during breaks in shooting] was ride horses, hiking and Walmart, you know? So, I mean, there were times where they saw us about four times a day, especially Julia and I. When she was there, we would go so often it was crazy. Slurpees were definitely a yes. Popcorn, ice cream, everything bad for you.
TVLINE | You need some vice! Some way to self-soothe.
Right? Thank you. I think so.
TVLINE | Most of the time that 1923’s audience has spent with Teonna, she’s been under attack. In your estimation, what is she really like at her core? What is her essence when she’s not in fight-or-flight mode?
Yeah. I think you kind of saw a little tiny piece of it when she was talking with Pete [in the Season 1 finael]. She’s still exploring what it is to be a child and how that feels and looks like to her, but she’s a little sassy one, man. [Laughs] She’s smart, you know what I’m saying? She’s smart in all the ways. She’s smart-mouthed a tiny bit. She likes to ruffle some feathers in the best possible way. I really hope that you can just see some of the comedy behind her, the subtle comedy that she has within herself, in Season 2. But who knows, man? Who f–king knows? …I want you guys to see all of her in Season 2. I’m just praying. But she’s witty, man. Teonna’s very witty.
TVLINE | That scene by the fire, when she’s essentially telling her father he can’t tell her what to do, was great — but it also made me sad, because you realize how much of her personality she’s pushed down and hidden for her own survival.
And I think that’s why that last little moment is kind of special too. With Pete, that little tender moment by the fire where she kind of just surrenders into him, I mean, that’s the first, like, honest human touch that she’s felt in five years. And my prediction is, because of that, I hope that at the beginning of Season 2 you’re going to start to see her guard be let down a little bit more. Because when she was with Hank, she still had a very huge defense mechanism up, because she still doesn’t know who this is, and she actively is protecting herself. She also doesn’t know what he’s capable of and protecting her and protecting them as a unit.
But when you see her with her dad, with Runs His Horse, she subtly lets her guard down a little bit, but is actively trying to prove to him that she’s powerful, that she’s full of strength, that she can do this, and she can help, and that they are going to get through it and are going to be safe.
TVLINE | Teonna has been away from her family for five years, and she’s 15?
Yeah, Teonna is about 15, 16. In Season 2, she should be 16.
TVLINE | That’s a significant amount of time for anyone, but she’s a child — she’s literally been gone for a third of her life. That’s such a robbery. Anyway, I’m just getting angry again on your character’s behalf, months after the episodes aired.
Dude. But you know it is a robbery, and you’re right. I mean, it’s something that unfortunately indigenous children are still being faced with today. We’re going to know in June what’s going on with ICWA. [Editor’s note: ICWA stands for the Indian Child Welfare Act, a law passed in 1978 to address the high numbers of Native American children taken from their homes and placed with non-Native American families. The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case that has the potential to overturn the law.] ICWA is basically a law that can take indigenous children from their families and put them in the foster-care system. And thus it’s stripping them of their culture and their indigeneity. You’re just taking their child all over again, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a f–king crime.