First Nations actress says role in TV series 1923 'my proudest accomplishment'

Leenah Robinson and Aminah Nieves play Baapuxti and Teonna Rainwater in Paramount+'s 1923. (Submitted by Leenah Robinson - image credit)
Leenah Robinson and Aminah Nieves play Baapuxti and Teonna Rainwater in Paramount+'s 1923. (Submitted by Leenah Robinson - image credit)

In the first episode of 1923, a TV series prequel to Yellowstone, a young Indigenous girl sitting in a classroom winces each time she is strapped by a nun for answering a question incorrectly.

Leenah Robinson, 20, from Brantford, Ont., plays Baapuxti, a young girl taken from Crow Indian Reservation and sent to a government-run boarding school in North Dakota.

She said filming this painful recreation in an actual school was almost suffocating at times.

"There's so many times where, you know, we were in between shots, and I would be getting my hair re-braided and I would just break down crying," Robinson said.

"It wasn't just, you know, some really bad schools. It was torture."

1923 has shocked audience members with its depiction of westward expansion. Robinson said she believes this narrative is necessary for people to acknowledge and is as cathartic for Indigenous people to see as it can be triggering.

"It was such a dark time, and it was genocide," she said.

"It was erasing our culture and trying to erase us."

Robinson began acting in high school plays and musicals. She is Mohawk on her father's side and Haisla and Heiltsuk Nation on her mother's side, and said her parents always encouraged her to do what she loves.

Submitted by Leenah Robinson
Submitted by Leenah Robinson

In fact, her mother Carla Robinson was a producer on the film where Leenah landed her first acting role – Monkey Beach, an adaptation of her aunt Eden Robinson's book.

Carla's parents are residential school survivors in British Columbia. Watching her daughter in the role of Baapuxti, she said, was hard, heartbreaking and scary.

"Up in Canada, we've heard of reconciliation and stuff like that … we've started that discussion, but down in the States it's not at the same scale as in Canada," she said.

"If you check out a lot of the comments online from non-Native people they're like 'what? I never knew this happened.'"

Leenah's on-screen cousin, played by Aminah Nieves, is defiant, often making things worse for herself with the nuns and priests. Seeing that character fight back reminds Carla of her own family's defiance at these schools – standing up to dorm supervisors in defence of their younger classmates.

Submitted by Leenah Robinson
Submitted by Leenah Robinson

Not often on the set with the show's stars Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, Leenah first met them at the red-carpet premiere in Las Vegas.

"I was definitely star-struck," said Leenah.

"I just froze. And I was like, 'I'm Leenah. Hi. Nice to meet you.'"

Leenah hopes her role will encourage youth to keep pushing their boundaries.

"I'm so proud of it," she said of her role in 1923.

"It's easily one of the biggest, my proudest accomplishment. I've worked so hard for it and I haven't taken it for granted a single day."