The horrific true story behind 1923’s most shocking plotline

Daily Mail [London, United Kingdom]

February 17, 2023

By Sadie Whitelocks

Inside real-life ‘religious’ boarding schools where Native Americans were ‘conditioned’ to be white – and where Hundreds died amid rampant abuse – as Yellowstone prequel brings horrors to life

  • The drama 1923 details the abuse that went on within church and government-run boarding schools
  • In 2012, the U.S. Interior Department launched an investigation to look at what happened decades ago
  • It uncovered that between 1819 and 1969 more than 500 students died at US operated Indian schools

The Yellowstone prequel spinoff 1923 offers insight into one of the darkest periods of Indigenous American history, during a time when horrific government-sanctioned abuse took place under the guise of education and religion.

While the plotline of the Montana-set drama might be fictional, the physical and emotional abuse that is witnessed at a Catholic boarding school for Indigenous American youth and attended by Teonna Rainwater – played by Aminah Nieves – is based on real-life events.

Indeed, the U.S. Interior Department launched an in-depth investigation in 2021 to look at the troubled legacy of government and church-run boarding schools and the findings make for shocking reading. 

The federal report uncovered that between 1819 and 1969 more than 500 students died at 408 U.S.-operated Native American boarding schools across 37 states or territories, many of them in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico but reaching as far as Alaska and Hawaii

In Montana, where 1923 is set, there were 16 boarding schools uncovered that had operated at 18 sites over the years. 

The Montana Memory Project, which was launched to help trace the state’s history, explains that in a bid to achieve ‘cultural assimilation’, Indian children were taken from their parents and often moved hundreds of miles from their home to live and attend school.

Children at the schools often were subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut. They were forced to wear Western clothing, change their names and adopt Western religions. 

Early curricula focused heavily on vocational skills, including homemaking for girls. A schedule that was unearthed by historians for a boarding school on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the town of Saint Ignatius in Montana reveals how much of the day was dedicated to work, instead of schooling. 

The children were subjected to a 5:30am wake-up call, with mass, hymns, breakfast and chores to follow. Classes were then interjected by bouts of work, with a 7:30pm dinner and bedtime at 8pm. 

The Montana Memory Project touches on the squalid conditions the children faced at the schools. It says: ‘Some parents willingly sent their children believing they would be well fed and cared for. Unfortunately, children were not always treated well. Many were abused, underfed, and forced to perform manual labor in difficult conditions. 

‘Children slept in dormitories. These were designed like military barracks, and were generally overcrowded. Food and hygiene were poor, often resulting in sickness and even death.’

Accounting for the number of children who died at the schools proved difficult because records weren’t always kept. Ground penetrating radar was used during the Interior’s investigation to search for remains in some places.

Bryan Newland, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, wrote that the government report ‘confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession.’

In 1923, there are numerous scenes that make for uncomfortable viewing as the abuse from decades ago is brought to life. 

In one of the scenes, Teonna can’t recite the chemical recipe for soap and as a result, she is brutally and repeatedly hit over the knuckles with a wooden ruler by Sister Mary O’Connor (played by Jennifer Ehle). 

When Father Renaud (played by Sebastian Roché) finds out what happened between the two, he then physically punishes both Teonna and Sister Mary.

After the beatings, the extent of Teonna’s injuries are seen when she is commanded to take a bath by the nuns and the cuts on her legs are revealed. 

The young student then goes about hatching an escape plan, aware that her friends who supposedly ‘graduated’ from school were actually dead.

While a stream of viewers complained that the scenes were getting too heavy-handed, French-American actor Roché told TV Insider that the show is helping to lay bare an important part of history. 

He explained: ‘Our business is not only entertainment, we need to tell stories.’ 

When quizzed about the importance of shedding light on the abuse occurring at these federal boarding schools, Nieves echoed similar sentiments. 

The actress, who was born in Indiana and American Indian herself, said: ‘That’s a huge reason why we do this. [The history of federal residential boarding schools] is something that we’re taught from the moment that we’re born, something that we feel within us. 

‘It’s something that lives with us whether we want it to or not. It’s going to live with our children. So doing this, it’s our duty, and it’s very important. I’m so honored to be here, to be telling our stories.’

Nieves’ co-star Ehle, revealed that they had cultural advisors on hand when they were filming the abusive scenes to make sure the reenactments were done in the right way.

She added that the show’s director Ben Richardson was ‘great’, ‘very compassionate and gave us lots of time and space.’

The federal boarding schools in Montana, which were traditionally run by Jesuit priests, have since closed or been reformed. 

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which dug further into the abuse that took place, was launched following the discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves of Indigenous children in Canada in May 2021. 

Many relatives of the deceased praised the nationwide investigation.

Andrea Big Goose, of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, revealed the repercussions the mistreatment had. She said: ‘I was born in 1949, and my whole family, from great-grandparents, all the way through my family to my son, have gone to the boarding schools.

‘[M]y parents were young parents in their 20s and had just come out of the boarding school, where they had been in the [19]30s and [19]40s… [M]y mother had been put there at five years old, and she didn’t leave until she graduated. So, she didn’t really know how to be a mom or didn’t really know how to [be]… a loving mom… 

‘And neither did my dad. One thing they did learn while they were there [is] how to discipline and they learned what alcohol was, so, growing up there was a lot of violence, a lot of alcoholism. And that wasn’t just in our home, it was throughout the [Indian] reservation. We grew up and became alcoholics. 

‘So, now, we do have post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve got all of the things that come from the boarding schools. Why aren’t more people who’ve had to live through this, why are we not being talked to? Why are we not talking about it?’ 

Nieves revealed that her final audition for the role took place in Wyoming the same week the Pope apologized to the Indigenous Canadians for the Church’s role in the atrocities committed in the residential school system.

More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were taken from their homes from the 19th century until the 1970s and placed in the schools in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their families and culture. 

She mused: ‘That was crazy for, I think, everyone in that room because a lot of people were actually from Canada that was also auditioning.’

The first volume of the U.S. Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report report was released in May 2021 and the Interior Department hasn’t said if another volume will be produced.

The boarding school coalition said the Interior’s work was an important step for America in reckoning with its role in the schools, but noted the agency’s authority was limited.

1923, which tells the origin story of Yellowstone’s Dutton family along with shedding light on the boarding school system, has been renewed for a second season at Paramount+.

Legendary stars Harrison Ford, 80, and Helen Mirren, 77, play Jacob and Cara on the show. 

News of a renewal came weeks after the December 2022 premiere episode of the first season. At the time, the show made headlines for debuting with 7.4 million viewers.