A Conversation with Elaine Miles
By Catherine Taylor
From the Radiance
Fall 1993 Issue
When friends heard that I was going to interview Elaine Miles of "Northern Exposure," they asked, "But what if she doesn't say anything?" I protested that I was interviewing the actress, not the quiet character she plays, but privately I was asking myself the same question.
Most of us see Elaine Miles on CBS every Monday evening as the taciturn Marilyn Whirlwind, Native American receptionist to Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) in the mythical town of Cicely, Alaska. Contrary to the character's last name, Marilyn imposes an often unsettling calm and easy wisdom into the medical office of the intensely self-centered and nervous Fleischman. She is a woman of few, but often bluntly observant or gently sage, words.
"Northern Exposure," now in its fifth season, mixes comedy with pathos in a community inhabited by unlikely yet sympathetically human characters: an egocentric retired astronaut who is also a gourmet cook, a radio DJ who reads Thoreau on the air, and a bush pilot who keeps shrines to her dead boyfriends. When Marilyn Whirlwind entered this world, actress Elaine Miles entered a profession she had never imagined for herself. Prior to her unexpected stardom, Miles had worked as a secretary for the YWCA and for a reservation clinic. But she primarily devoted her energies to her family and to her Native American heritage. A prize-winning traditional dancer, she attended powwows almost every weekend.
Her life changed the day she drove her mother, Armenia Miles (also on the show), to an audition in response to a casting call for Native Americans. Elaine reluctantly agreed to try out after someone from casting spotted her in the waiting room. Today she speaks with pride (and still some surprise) at her accomplishments.
The woman I met was lively and refreshingly forthright. Her sentences were punctuated by smiles and frequent giggles. She often paused as she considered a response to my questions and then burst forth with memories of her grandmother, an anecdote from the set, or thoughts about her new responsibilities as a Native American woman on nationwide TV.
What follows is a conversation that took place over several hours. It began in a back room of the interiors location for "Northern Exposure" outside of Seattle. It was completed by telephone a few weeks later, after Alice Ansfield and I had enjoyed the privilege of watching Elaine Miles in one of her "real-life" roles, as head woman dancer at a powwow at Stanford University.
C.T.: I've heard you say that acting is easy. It's just reading. Is it really that easy for you?
E.M.: Yeah. I get the script, and maybe that week I look at it and then I don't really worry about it until the day I'm actually going to do it. I don't really know how I do it, but I get it in my head. We have to memorize everything.
C.T.: What about your voice?
E.M.: That's me. That's Elaine. But the first season they made Marilyn more stereotypical. They [director, producers] made me pronounce everything. Like the first scene I did I was supposed to go out and tell Rob [Rob Morrow, who plays Dr. Joel Fleischman] that the patients were still talking. And I said, "Can't I just say, 'They're still talking?'" And they said, "No, say, 'They are still talk-ing.'" So it was funny when I saw the very first episode - my parents taped it and then I watched it - because I pronounce everything: talk-ing. But that changed in time. Now Marilyn talks the way I talk.
C.T.: You told someone earlier today that Marilyn's character has evolved a bit.
E.M.: Yeah, the first season Marilyn never had too much to say. But now I get to carry on conversations, and I work with everybody. Before I just worked with Rob Morrow. They gradually started moving me into working with Barry Corbin [who plays Maurice: remember the episode when he tries to go into the ostrich-ranching business with Marilyn?] Peg Philips, and John Corbett, [Ruth Anne and Chris: remember when they taught Marilyn to drive and she finally decided she preferred to walk?]. Now I work with just about everyone.
C.T.: One of the questions everyone wanted me to ask was, How much do you identify with Marilyn on the show? Have you been able to infuse the character of Marilyn with Elaine?
E.M.: I think I've been able to put myself into her. Now I get to smile. There were a few times when I just kinda slipped a little smile in there and people started writing in, I love Marilyn's dimples or Marilyn has a nice smile. Why can't she smile more? And I was like, Yeah, yeah, right. It worked. Cause those are my dimples.
C.T.: Do you think the initial stiffness of your character was part of a stereotype?
E.M.: Yes. Like in the very first season, when Marilyn competed in a dance in a talent show. I dressed in my own traditional outfit, and I was very uncomfortable doing that because Alaskan natives don't dress like that. The producers had seen a picture of me in my traditional outfit. They thought it would be neat if I could dance in it. I had some negative feedback from natives because each tribe has its own tribal dress and traditions. And then I received other positive letters from Alaskan natives. One woman wrote me a three-page letter, not to condemn me, but just to be happy because I was a Native American woman portraying a Native American woman on television. She made me feel very good.
C.T.: Do you feel the show's producers are doing a better job now?
E.M.: Yes. They've started researching and doing things more authentically. And they're listening. They have more input from the Alaskan natives to make it real - well not, real, you know, because it is TV. And that's what I write to the people, I tell them, "This is TV, it's make-believe." But at first it was really tough for me because I couldn't take the criticism.
After the second season I started getting enough nerve to say what I did and didn't like doing. Before, I would tell someone like Barry Corbin, and he would say, "Well, I'll tell them, but you're gonna have to learn how to tell them you're not comfortable doing that." And then my dad would tell me that too. He used to say, "You gotta say your piece. You can't have someone say it for you."
C.T.: So it's been a real process of finding out how much more assertive you can be?
E.M.: It has. Because, being a girl, or a woman, you don't really say that much. Or people don't really listen. And now when I say something, people listen, and I like that.
C.T.: You were surprised in this career.
E.M.: Yeah. Yeah. I didn't expect I was going to be doing it, even after the first episode. After the first show, I went up to Joshua Brand and John Falsey [the producers] and told them, "Well, thank you. I had a real good time working." And John Falsey looked at me and said, "Elaine, you're not getting away that easy. You're in all eight episodes." And I said, "I'm not either." And he goes, "Yes, you are." And then I thought, Oh, my God. So I ran to the corner and I called up my mom and dad and told them, "I'm in every episode. I'm gonna be in all eight of them." I would watch the show the first season, and I couldn't really believe that was me on the screen. The first time I saw it, I said, "I don't sound like that, do I?" And I looked at myself and said, "I don't look like that, do I?" And then my dad said, "Well, you look like your grandma."
C.T.: Do you look more like you to yourself now?
E.M.: Yeah. And now Rebecca Lynne, the hair girl, does my hair in ways that I would do myself. I kinda give her the ideas, like I'd like it hanging, or it's hot - let's put it up. And she goes from there. The first season I just had braids, just braids. That's want they wanted. Then they asked me one time, "Is there anything you'd like to tell us, or any complaints?" And inside I was asking myself, Should I really tell them? Because I wasn't really sure if I should say anything. The last time I remember wearing braids at home was when I was a little girl, or when I'm in my traditional dress, I'll braid my hair. And Mom goes, "Well, tell them that." So I got up enough nerve to tell them, "Well, I don't like what you're doing with my hair. Can I have it hanging, because Native Americans do let their hair hang down once in a while. And we don't always wear two braids." And then they gradually got into letting me do what I would do with my hair.
C.T.: What about your clothes? Last night I watched the show again where you go to Seattle and you're wearing that wonderfully colorful coat. Alice Ansfield kept calling me before this interview to say, Be sure to ask her where she gets her clothes!
E.M.: Well, the majority of my own clothes I get at western stores. Cowboy boots, Wranglers, roper shirts. My mom has made me some clothes, and my sister does some sewing for me, too. Also my nephew, he puts Indian designs on my jackets. And I found a Native American designer, Sherman Funmaker. I met him at the Tulsa Indian Arts Powwow. I told him I do appearances, and he said, "I'd like you to have one of my outfits." And I was like, Wow! He designs anything. And if women don't want a Native American motif, he can design flowers or whatever. He's gonna make me a denim jacket with fringes on it, because I like those, and I can't find one - they're all either too long or too small.
C.T.: And you have the most gorgeous earrings.
E.M.: Oh, all the jewelry, the earrings, and the barrettes I wear are mine. Most of them I've received as gifts, or my sister and my mother made them. But the majority of them are from Oklahoma and New Mexico, because that's where I've spent most of my time at powwows recently.
C.T.: With your dancing?
E.M.: No, just to be there. Because my father passed away a little over a year ago -
C.T.: Oh, I'm sorry.
E.M.: And so I was out of the powwow circuit for that year. I finally went back in October.
C.T.: What about your dancing?
E.M.: I've been dancing since I was a year old. I started walking when I was ten months, and the minute I started walking, both my grandmothers put their heads together to make me a traditional outfit. And I still have my little dress. I hold it up and say, "I can't believe I was that small!." I won my first prize when I was a year old.
C.T.: Could you give me a brief explanation of what a powwow is all about?
E.M.: A powwow is a social get-together where we can sing, dance, they have arts and crafts and Indian food. Different tribes and groups from everywhere travel miles to go to a powwow.
C.T.: At the Stanford powwow, there were many different tribes present, including an Alaskan tribe -
E.M.: Yeah, I got to meet them. That was really nice. They watch the show. They told me they were so happy that I was a real Native American portraying Marilyn. In a way, I was afraid to meet them at first. But I wanted to share a little part of myself with them.
C.T.: It looked as though you were sharing a lot of yourself with a lot of people.
E.M.: A lot of people were congratulating me on my success and how I can come back to my traditional ways at the same time. I felt these people really did care, and I was like, Wow, thank you. I felt like I was complete. I guess because I was so much into powwows - we used to go to powwows almost every weekend - that with working, there's a part of me that's missing. And last weekend I felt like I was all me, I was all there. So I was very happy. It was a beautiful weekend, the weekend was perfect.
C.T.: But you also talked about the responsibility of being the head woman dancer, that it was a big deal for you.
E.M.: Yes, it was. Just being asked is an honor. I was representing all the women, and I had to carry myself with grace.
C.T.: But you were also a big star. The announcer introduced you as "probably the most famous Native American woman in the world right now."
E.M.: That was something I noticed, because this is the first time it's really happened to me. Like there was this Kiowa man who gave me his family crest - it was given to them by the government because his father was in the Navy - and this man's grandfather had started the gourd dance - a veteran dance, honoring them. I was really happy to receive that, because my dad was in the Army. This man is seventy-two years old and he was talking about how Monday every week he thanks the Lord that he can live to watch "Northern Exposure." I thought that was so sweet.
C.T.: Do you feel special responsibility as a Native American woman on TV?
E.M.: Yeah, I've found out that I'm not just myself or my family or my tribe, but I'm representing all Native Americans. That's a lot of responsibility to carry, and I do the best I can.
C.T.: You are a mix of two tribes -
E.M.: Cayuse on my mother's side, and my father was a Nez Perce. But they are neighbors, and very similar.
C.T.: Where did the name Miles come from?
E.M.: My grandpa went to a boarding school.
C.T.: They gave him a non-Native name there?
E.M.: Right. That's what happened to a lot of people.
C.T.: What about the name Whirlwind?
E.M.: I think that came from the time the producers heard me say I felt I was stuck in a whirlwind because everything happened so fast. And it was my great-great grandfather's name - his name was Charlie Whirlwind - on my mother's side. He was like a medicine man. So it was kind of neat that I got to use it.
C.T.: I understand that you lived on a reservation.
E.M.: It was Umatilla Reservation. There were three tribes - Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse. We have a nice reservation. It's really pretty. The location is at the foothills of the Blue Mountains and right amongst the wheat fields. The mountains are timber land; we have a lot of timber.
But I only stayed there for the first three years of my life; then we moved near Seattle because my father worked for Boeing. My Dad used to commute to Seattle all week and then come home for weekends. That's the only reason we moved up here.
C.T.: What about family, and extended family?
E.M.: Extended family for a Native American is like the word for family. I have adopted parents in Montana, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
C.T.: Are these people so close to the family that they are considered like family even though they aren't blood relatives?
E.M.: Yeah. That's what extended family is to a Native American. And they're of different tribes, too. The ones in Montana are Black Foot and Cree. And the ones in Oklahoma are Cheyenne. And the ones in Arizona are Navaho. One of my adopted moms, who passed away last year, was Mecaleros (Apache). And then I have Pawnee and Oto adopted grandparents from Oklahoma, and adopted sisters that are Pawnee and Oto.
Both my parents came from pretty big families. My whole family still lives on the reservation, but my one sister lives in Oregon, and my mother lives here in Seattle.
Culturally I was brought up Native American, even though I was brought up in the city, because I'd go home for the summer and spend time with my grandma and grandpa, and they would teach us our traditional ways. So I was brought up traditionally.
C.T.: What does that mean, traditionally?
E.M.: I know my Native American heritage. I can speak and understand my language, the Cayuse and the Nez Perce. I know how to bead. I can weave. I know how to process our foods. Like we go root digging, and we will be having the root festival. When the salmon starts coming, I know how to process the salmon. I can dry it, I can it. I can cut it up. Venison, like deer meat or elk meat - I can butcher that up and dry it.
C.T.: And you learned all this from -
E.M.: From my grandmas. And I know how to process the hide, so then we can use the hide. Cause we don't waste any part of the animal. We use the brain to process the hide. We use everything. And the antlers were made into tools. And I go berry picking in the summer, and I know how to process those, to dry them or can them. I know how to make jams. My mom showed us how to make syrup out of huckleberry and chokecherry.
C.T.: Do you still do some of this when you can?
E.M.: I do. And the root digging - my favorite is the wild carrot. Whenever I'd go dig them, I'd always end up eating half of them and then come back with half a bag. And my mom and my grandma would say, "You're not 'sposed to eat 'em, you're 'sposed to pick 'em." And I was like, "Yeah, okay." And the wild celery was good too. I love that.
And I can weave with corn husk - that's what the Nez Perce women are known for. It's woven into bags, or into contemporary things now. I know how to sew too. I've made coats. I made a jacket out of a Pendleton blanket, and I gave that to my mom. And the outfit my Mom wore at the powwow, I did the beadwork and put it all together.
C.T.: Do you connect making things with your hands to particular values?
E.M.: Maybe I just connect it to my grandmothers. Because I was very close to my grandmothers - my mother's mother, and then after my grandma passed away, my mother's aunt took us under her wing, so I called her grandma, but she passed away too. It's like, I made this, and if Grandma was here, she'd be so proud of me. And once I start something I've always got to finish it, because I'm always wondering what it's gonna look like, something will emerge.
One of the neatest pieces that I made was a pipe bag. My dad saw it after I finished it. I was so proud of it. I told him, "I'm gonna sell it." And he said, "That's one of your best pieces you ever did." But I kept looking at it and looking at it, and I thought, This is one of my best pieces I ever did. My mom and dad didn't know if I sold it or I kept it. And that following Christmas I gave it to my Dad, and he cried because he couldn't believe it. He said, "I thought you sold this a long time ago." He was so proud of it. He'd look at it and then he'd put it away. And once in a while he'd pull it out in front of company and say, "See, she can still do this stuff." And when he passed away he took it. I put it inside with him. So he always will have my best piece.
C.T.: In terms of philosophy, I understand there was also a Catholic influence -
E.M.: Oh, yeah. Catholic school nightmares.
C.T.: How did the Catholic get brought into your family?
E.M.: Well, my great-grandparents gave a piece of land to the priest so he could build a church and a school on Umatilla Reservation. My mom was baptized Catholic, and my grandparents were, too. When the priests were first around and my mom was little, she used to hide because that man with the skirt was coming again and he'd go down and dunk her in the river. Mom laughs because she's been baptized three times by three different priests who came on the reservation - because they didn't have records of it.
My great-grandfather's wish was that the school had to be open to the Indian kids. My mother went to school there, my sister went to school there, but it didn't stay open. I went to school here in Seattle. But I went to church there. My sister and her little boys, and my aunt still go to church there. And we all go there at Christmas for midnight mass.
C.T.: How did the Native American and the Catholic approaches work together?
E.M.: Even at the Catholic church they translated and sang hymns in Native American. But we also practiced Native American beliefs. I used to wonder, Why do we have to go to church and then go to church at the long house? My sister and I used to laugh because we were the holiest little kids around.
My grandpa used to say that we go to church and sometimes we go down to the long house, but it doesn't matter because you only pray to one God. And my grandmother couldn't read, but when she talked about Native American beliefs, it was almost the exact same thing as in the Bible.
C.T.: Did you get a lot of the story telling tradition from your grandmother?
E.M.: I don't call it story telling. She just told me things, taught me things, verbally. What I live by is what my grandma taught me. She always used to tell me, because I had a rough time through high school, she goes, "Don't worry or don't think about what you did yesterday. That happened yesterday. That's done and gone with. And don't worry about what you're gonna do tomorrow, 'cause that's tomorrow. All you think about is what you're doing today, and do what you have to do today." And then her other one was, "Don't worry about what you're gonna do tomorrow, because there might not be a tomorrow for you. We're all here on borrowed time."
When my dad died it was really hard for me, and I had to think about what she had told me. I love spring because of flowers, and she had told me, "When someone dies that is close to you, it hurts. But it's like picking a flower. It's like God picks the prettiest one, just like you do - you go out and you see the flowers and you pick the prettiest one. But the following year another one comes up in its place." When I lost my dad, it hurt, but there's always someone else who comes into your life. When she told me things, I don't think I was actually paying attention, and now she's gone and I remember, Well, Grandma told me this or Grandma told me that.
And it's amazing. It's like the minute you ask me a question, I hear her, what she says. Like my grandmother used to say that when it rains, someone has passed away that day, and it's just washing the tracks away, and cleansing. I was always afraid of thunder and lightning. She always used to tell me, "That's just the people on the other side celebrating."
My grandma also told me, "You have the memories, but don't worry. You'll be all jumbled up worried about tomorrow and yesterday. So all you do is live for today and what you're doing today."
C.T.: So how do you get the energy and the focus to do what you have to do, right now, today? It seems that what you have to do is pretty demanding.
E.M.: Yes, it is very demanding. I just wake up and thank God that I'm here one more day. Then I start thinking, Oh my God, I have to do that scene. And I'm like a little basket case. And then when I'm here, that's when I actually look at my script and get myself into Marilyn.
C.T.: What's a usual work day like for you?
E.M.: It all depends on how many scenes I'm actually in, and whether I have any speaking lines. Today wasn't too bad; it was mostly waiting. It's always hurry, hurry, and wait. Hurry and wait.
C.T.: I knew the scene I saw you in today would be shot over and over, but it wasn't until I stood there and watched that I realized what hard work it must be.
E.M.: Yeah, to do it over and over and over again. They sometimes use parts of one shot and cut it in with the ending of another shot or something like that. So we always have to remember what we're doing, how we open the door, what hand we're carrying something in, or which way we turned.
C.T.: I recently saw the episode where you Cajun dance - and I loved it. I wondered if you felt, even though it was Cajun dancing, that you were getting to bring a little of your unique talent to the part? It looked as though you were really enjoying yourself.
E.M.: I was. It was a lot of fun, even though we had to do it almost eight hours! Because I love to western dance, and western and Cajun dance are similar, except for a little different beat. To get to do that in front of a camera was a lot of fun. Marilyn can do almost anything - she Cajun dances, she plays Russian music on the piano. She's got a basket full of things she keeps under wraps for a while, but that she just keeps pulling out. That's how I see Marilyn.
C.T.: And when Marilyn pulls out a talent like Cajun dancing, then you have to learn that, too. So sometimes the character stimulates you?
E.M.: Right. I even thought about taking piano lessons because at one point I had to play the piano - the wedding march when Holling and Shelly [played by John Cullum and Cynthia Geary] got married. And I don't know how to play the piano. When we had to shoot that scene and I was like, Oh my God, what am I going to do, what am I going to do? One of the props guys showed me the basics, where the fingers should go. And then I shocked myself and I actually played part of it! They said that would have been a great shot, but I was so excited about actually making it sound like the wedding march that I turned around with excitement and said, "I did it!"
C.T.: So in the actual show, is that you playing, or do they dub in?
E.M.: They dub in. And it's a different woman's hands. They had to go through many women to find someone with hands like mine. I was checking everybody, asking, "Do you have little hands?" Finally they found someone, and she's not even Native American - she's Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, and German.
C.T.: So that's what it took to replicate Elaine Miles's hands! How long does it take to tape a show?
E.M.: Eight days. In the Cajun episode I worked six of the eight days. We work Monday through Friday, and we have Saturday and Sunday off. Some of the days can be long, especially when all nine principal people are in it, because they have to get individual shots or double shots or close-ups. Last year we were off May through July. This year we're off May to the end of June.
C.T.: What are you going to do with your vacation?
E.M.: I spend time with myself. And then like tomorrow I'm going to go have lunch with my mom, and I went to visit my cousin yesterday. I spend a little time with my family and just relax, because working ten months out of the year can be hectic. There can be times I don't see my mom, even though we only live nineteen miles apart. So that tells you how much this job keeps me busy.
C.T.: Do you still have energy to go out dancing for fun?
E.M.: Oh, yeah. Once in a while I do that just to get out and enjoy myself, with my boyfriend and my cousins. We'll all meet at a western bar and kick up our boots.
C.T.: What has changed in your life, from before you became an actress?
E.M.: I can't really go out and do all our foods, because the height of the season is while I'm working. Deer season I'm working, and salmon season I'm working. I don't get to travel to powwows as much as I'd like. But now I have money, I have a checking account, and I've never had a checking account. I bought my own truck. I always thought my dad would buy me a car, but I bought it myself, and that felt good.
C.T.: Has working on the show changed your life in terms of your friendships and your family life?
E.M.: It was really hard the first season because I used to have a lot of friends, and they couldn't understand. They'd ask, "Why weren't you at this powwow?" And I'd say, "I was working." They'd go, "Well, you were working before, but you'd always come." It started getting me down. It was really hard to try and tell them I can't do what I used to do because I signed this piece of paper. And then my dad said, "Well, if they were really good friends they would understand."
That first season, I was a total basket case. It got to the point where I couldn't tell if I was Marilyn or if I was Elaine. It got that bad. But as time went on, I understood what my dad was trying to tell me. And I've made good friends among the actors, the crew, the extras. They treat me like me. I'm not any different than I was four years ago. I'm still me. Only thing different is I have a checking account and my own truck. Otherwise, I'm still the same.
C.T.: It sounds as though your parents were very supportive.
E.M.: Oh, they were, they were. And my mom is still very supportive. She works on the show.
C.T.: How is it acting with your mom?
E.M.: It's fun. Because it's almost like just being us. It feels natural. My mom and I have a unique relationship. Because she's my mom, but at the same time she's my best friend. Most of the time she's my stand-in, for when they do the lighting and get the camera set up while I'm getting dressed. In the first episode she played Ed's aunt [Ed is played by Darren Burrows], who is married to Mr. Anku, the medicine man. But last season and this season she's played Marilyn's mother.
C.T.: I was recalling the show where you move out of your mother's home, and a clip I'd read in which you said, "I used to be this little homebody." Then today I heard that now you have your own apartment. Did you live with your family before, and now you've just made this independent move?
E.M.: Yeah. That kind of ties in with the show, because the writers always use something from everybody's personal life. My mom lives in south Seattle, and it used to take a long time to get here, so I moved closer. I like the independence. I'm an independent woman now.
C.T.: You still like to do the same things with your free time?
E.M.: Yeah, I love the mall. I go to Mrs. Field's, buy those little bags of cookies and a pop, and just go sit and watch people.
C.T.: Sort of like you did in the show where Marilyn visits Seattle, where you sat on the bench?
E.M.: Yeah, and I'd get chicken and jo-jos and go sit in the park and watch people or feed the birds, and, like my grandma used to say, "just enjoy life."
C.T.: So you're good at relaxing when you're not working?
E.M.: Yeah, but now I can relax and spend money! I buy clothes. I buy shoes, like the new Air Jordans - they came out and I had to have the white ones, because I had the black ones and I wanted the white ones.
C.T.: And you like boots. I've seen a lot of different boots on the show, and I assume you get to wear those home.
E.M.: No. Those are wardrobe's. But I have some of my own: I have purple ones, green ones, gray ones, turquoise ones, and I have lacers, all kinds. My boyfriend bought me some made out of cowhide, the black-and-white ones.
C.T.: So is your boyfriend supportive of this work?
E.M.: Yes, he is. I've known him about two years. He's from Oklahoma.
C.T.: Does he go with you to powwows and rodeos? Do you share that?
E.M.: Yes, we do. We met at a powwow, through his cousin.
C.T.: What about the rodeos - is this a Native American rodeo circuit?
E.M.: No, it's the PRCA, the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association. My grandfather and his brothers and his cousins were calf ropers and team ropers. And my mom used to team rope, and she was a barrel racer - they have three barrels set up like a cloverleaf and you have to go around them. It's a timed event. My mom also used to jockey. She was so insulted, her and my grandma, when they made that big megillah about the first woman jockey. They'd been jockeying for a long time. They would stick their hair up in their hats and use nicknames, because women weren't allowed to ride back then in the rodeo circuit.
C.T.: So what about you? Do you ride?
E.M.: I used to ride in parades and ride around at home. Barry Corbin is really into rodeos and into celebrity rodeos. He got Darren Burrows involved. And he says, "Well, Elaine, you come from a horse family. Why don't you barrel race and then you could come to the rodeos with us?" And I said, "No, I'm too chubba - too big." And then Mom goes, "You could go ahead and try it." I started watching the rodeos on TNN, and there's a couple girls that were really kind of large and I thought, "Well, if they can do it, I can do it too. And then Mom goes, Well, why don't you?" And she told my grandma, and they were all excited, "Baby's gonna barrel race and we're gonna have a barrel racer in the family again." My mom's cousin was the last one who barrel raced from our reservation, and when we go to rodeos there's no more Indian girls from home.
C.T.: So now they've got one?
E.M.: I'm still getting my nerve up. Mom keeps talking to me about it, so maybe you'll see me do it.
C.T.: Have you felt that your weight might interfere with anything else in your life?
E.M.: No. I've been dancing all this time. I just have to have strong legs.
C.T.: Do you think your Native American culture has a different attitude about women's weight and roundness than the mainstream culture?
C.T.: You weren't ever pressured to lose weight?
C.T.: Were you complimented on your full cheeks?
E.M.: Nooo. Mostly the compliments I got were for my hair and my dimples. I am large, and I'm happy with myself and with my inner self. You have to strive for whatever makes you happy and not worry about what other people think. It's the way you feel that counts.
C.T.: Well, I have to tell you that you are very beautiful.
E.M.: Thank you. All weekend long at the powwow people were telling me, "You're such a pretty little thing." And these men would come up and say, "If you didn't have a boyfriend,. I'd take you home right now." I was like, "No." It was a little much. Sometimes I wondered, is it really because of what I'm doing or is it because of the way I look now? To me, it's what I'm doing, so I'm getting a little more attention. But Mom, she keeps saying, "You always did have your own little look anyway."
But I was always one of the girls in our whole family that never won the beauty contests - my sisters and cousins, all of them, at least placed in the beauty contests, and even my mom. Every time I tried ,I never won. And then my grandmother would say, "It doesn't matter, even if you don't win, you're still my pretty one." But I used to feel bad because my cousins would be walking around with all their little blankets they'd win. My grandma would tell me, "Well, they don't win in contest dancing, and that's something that you have, you have the talent to dance." And I was like, "Yeah, okay." Because when you're young, a teenager, it's not the same. Another thing she'd tell me was that I was like the little flower that hadn't come to full bloom. When I got older and started trying for powwow princess, my grandma would say, "It's not all looks, they pick you for your talent, your style of outfit, and how you carry yourself. Just don't be discouraged." She said, "No matter how much people put you down" - like my PE teacher who did that to me - "you just always strive for the best you can be. Just keep trying. Someday you'll be the princess for the tribe." As I grew up, I understood more. My grandma was right. I had the talent to dance, and I had the talent to bead and weave. I had this stuff inside of me. My grandma died in 198l. She always used to tell me that someday I would be something.
C.T.: I've heard that you're becoming more involved with Native American groups and causes.
E.M.: I went to the Youth Suicide Conference a few years ago, because there's a high rate on reservations. I got to talk about myself and the difficulties I found going between the two worlds of the reservation and life in the non-Indian society of the city.
My message was to learn to appreciate yourself and try and look at the inner beauty you have within you. I don't have any younger brothers or sisters, but I love kids. Some kids came up after and talked to me, and it was really hard when they told me about themselves and what they'd been going through. I know why they want to think that ending their life might be better, but I thought, You can't do that because there's so much to look forward to in this world. A lot of those kids haven't been off the reservation. There's so much else to see. So I told them things that they could look forward to and not to listen to peer pressures.
Also, now they're starting more after-school activities on the reservations. There's one program where if you keep your grades up, you get to go camping for one or two weeks - and that means something to kids. In the last few years I think more kids are finishing high school. When I graduated, there were eight of us in our family graduating that year. That was important to our family. All my aunts and uncles graduated from high school.
C.T.: It sounds as though your family has been very united and supportive.
E.M.: That's another thing. Today a lot of families aren't as close. Families should be there to give us the little shove when we aren't really sure of ourselves. And a lot of kids weren't into their culture, and now they're starting to get involved in their Native American culture ,and that helps.
C.T.: What about the child abuse prevention public service announcement you did?
E.M.: That was for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, on the radio. That was for child abuse, neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome. A lot of these kids, their mothers are just kids, too, and they're growing up together. What I want is to help kids see that there is a better tomorrow.
C.T.: And there's an entirely different thing you're getting involved with, the more commercial appearances with Macy's.
E.M.: Macy's is opening up a "Northern Exposure" line of clothing. The employees took a vote, and they want Marilyn to open it, in New York.
C.T.: Are you looking forward to that?
E.M.: Oh, yeah. Because I've never been to New York. So I'm excited.
C.T.: So you do like an adventure?
E.M.: I do. I WANT an adventure. When I was doing that Seattle vacation episode, I was always saying, "I WANT an adventure."
C.T.: I wonder if you have favorite "Northern Exposure" shows, where parts of Marilyn come out that you really like. For example, in the show with the family totem pole being carved, when it turns into a family argument -
E.M.: That was the first time I ever got to play mad.
C.T.: Did it feel good to play mad?
E.M.: It seemed funny to be mad. Like the time Dave the cook [played by William J. White] won't serve me and I jump off my stool and walk off - when I walked off camera, I started giggling.
C.T.: So, that really felt like acting?
E.M.: Yeah, it did. Because we weren't doing the scene right, and the director got us together and told us, "You guys are really supposed to be mad at each other."
C.T.: So you really had to get up for doing it?
E.M.: Yeah, yeah. The other show I liked best was the second time Enrico Bellati [the mime from a traveling carnival played by Bill Irwin with whom Marilyn has a romance] came to town. I had to turn him down, and I had to be touching. I was never like that on the show before, and I had to psych myself up for that.
C.T.: Someone in an article I read called "Northern Exposure" "a benign world in a nonjudgmental universe." That made me think of a place with nice people where people could discover themselves. I wonder what you think the show says?
E.M.: Right now I like it because it focuses on everybody, on all cultures. Joel is Jewish, Ed and Marilyn and Dave are Native Americans. They have the gay guys who own the bed and breakfast. And then Maurice is like this redneck. There's comedy, like when the guys ran naked through the street [as part of Cicely's celebration of spring] And then they have special moments like when Ed [Darren] was looking for his father and he actually found him. I cried when Ed told him, "I'm your son." When I came to work the next day, I told Darren, "You made me cry." That was a touching moment, and that was the first time the show ever did that to me. So the show kind of deals with everything. I like it the way it is.
C.T.: You weren't an actress, weren't expecting to be an actress -
E.M.: I never in my whole life dreamt I would be doing this.
C.T.: So, do you feel like an actress now?
E.M.: No. I feel just like me, like I said before, me with a checking account and a truck.
C.T.: Are you thinking of other acting possibilities?
E.M.: I'd love to, now that I have the taste of it, and after doing the Bellati show, where I had to be serious, and the totem one, where I had to be angry. Now that they're letting me deal with more emotions - I feel like I could do anything.
CATHERINE TAYLOR is the senior editor of Radiance and a freelance writer and editor living in Berkeley, California.
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