PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) – Elaine Miles, a regular on the show “Northern Exposure,” still shakes her head when she thinks about how her professional acting career began.
“It was all an accident,” she told a group of Blue Mountain Community College students recently. “My mom was the one auditioning.”
Miles accompanied her mom, Armenia Miles, to a “Northern Exposure” casting call for American Indian women and sat in the waiting area while her mother tried out for the part of Marilyn Whirlwind. She marveled at the hundreds of women she saw there, some dressed in Native finery.
“I never saw so many Native American women in my life,” she remembered.
Miles, born in Pendleton, is Nez Perce and Cayuse and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
As the 24-year-old Miles sat impatiently waiting for her mother, one of the show’s agents spotted her among the multitude, dressed in shorts, anxious to get down the road to a powwow where she was scheduled to dance.
When someone asked her to read for the part, she balked.
“At first, I was insulted – the character was supposed to be 35 years old,” Miles said. “My mom said, ‘Just do it, so we can get out of here.’”
Finally, Miles, with no previous acting experience, read for the part and got it. Her mother was asked to play a smaller recurring part in the comedy which launched in 1990 and aired six seasons.
For the next six years, she played the unflappable receptionist to a local doctor in a fictional Alaskan town. A woman of few words, she evoked laughter simply through facial expression. When she spoke, she dispensed her special brand of deadpan wisdom.
“Marilyn was like a jack of all trades,” Miles said. “She spoke French. She played piano. She learned how to Cajun dance.”
Miles, who jokes as a stand-up comic about being a “frybread babe” and a “round, brown woman,” is fairly short. To make her appear taller, she did some “Northern Exposure” scenes walking atop a “runway of boxes.”
Since her debut, Miles has appeared in eight movies, done stand-up comedy and worked on a Canadian television series, “The Rez.”
As an actress, Miles said she often comes up against stereotypes of Native American women.
During the first season, her hairstyle was a bone of contention.
“They always wanted my hair braided,” she said. “Braids, just braids.”
Outside of ceremonial dancing, Miles hadn’t worn braids since she was a little girl. Eventually, she got up enough nerve to express her opinion and her hairstyles became more varied.
Another time, Miles butted heads with the show’s writers over a powwow scene and her wardrobe of traditional dress.
“I knew Alaskan Natives didn’t dress like that,” she said, “but they were hell bent on doing it. It was hard for them to understand the differences between each tribe – each tribe has its own ways.”
“If you do it,” she told them, “I’m going to be the one getting the mail.”
To her relief, viewers have praised her portrayal of Native American women.
In 1994, Miles was torn between attending two different award ceremonies scheduled for the same night. One was the Screen Actors Guild Awards – the cast was nominated for best cast in a comedy series. The other was a First Americans in the Arts award that honors American Indian participation in the arts.
Despite pressure to attend the Screen Actors Guild, she chose the First American gathering.
“I told my producer, my own people are recognizing me,” she said. “That means something to me – it means more to me than the Screen Actors Guild.”
To her surprise, some of her “Northern Exposure” colleagues, cut out of their evening early to attend her ceremony.
Miles has appeared in “Tortilla Heaven,” “Skins,” “Smoke Signals,” “The Business of Fancy Dancing,” “Scattering Dad,” “Pandora’s Clock” and “Mad Love.” This year, “Wyvern” appeared on the SyFy channel.
She recently created “RezRobics,” a workout video that encourages Native Americans to avoid diabetes and other health problems with exercise. Miles, called “the Indian Rosanne” by some, continues her stand-up comedy appearances.
Miles now lives in Seattle, but comes often to the Pendleton area to visit family, dance and ride horses.
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