Elaine Miles was born in Pendleton, Oregon, of Cayuse/Nez Perce ancestry, and lived to the age of three on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. Her family then moved to Renton, Washington, where her father was a Boeing machinist. She learned many of the traditional skills in her youth—storytelling, beading, pottery and weaving—and is a prize-winning traditional dancer.
Miles was offered the role of Marilyn Whirlwind when she was spotted in the waiting room at an audition. This came as a surprise as she had not come with any intent to audition—she was only there to give her mother, Armenia Miles, a ride. She had no previous acting experience. She gained respect in the American Indian community not only for portraying a Tlingit woman, but for her efforts to make sure the character was a culturally accurate representation. Miles was named Native American Woman of the Year in 1993, and America's Celebrity Indian of the Year in 1995.