with Elaine Miles
By Catherine Taylor
From the Radiance
Fall 1993 Issue
(which is sold out… but it's such a great interview!)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
E.M.: My grandpa went to a
C.T.: They gave him a non-Native
E.M.: Right. That's what happened
to a lot of people.
C.T.: What about the name
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
E.M.: Oh, yeah. Because I've
never been to New York. So I'm excited.
C.T.: So you do like an
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
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
C.T.: So, that really felt like
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
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
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
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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