Usually an editor’s first column feels like an overview of a resumé: Here’s who I am. Here’s what I’ve done. Here’s what I plan to do.
Since landing the job, I can’t stop thinking about Ross.
No, not the iconic discount store that provides wardrobe upgrades at a fraction of the cost. I’m talking about Ross Baulne, a friend and fellow tribal member from the Colville Reservation.
In the days following my acceptance of the editor’s position, he was found dead.
Memories of junior high sports and my early 20s are coming back to me, when we spent the most time together.
What I remember most are his opinions.
Back in the day, he’d tell his friends, “What have you read lately?,” with a tone that hinted he’d knowingly out-learned you since the time you last saw him.
Most of the time, you had read nothing. It was an instant win for him in a competition you weren’t necessarily participating in.
He was avidly reading until his final day, his father told me, and actively sharing what he learned.
A few years into my tenure as editor of the Colville Tribal Tribune, in 2016, I received an email from Ross that changed the course of my journalism career.
To that point, I had received many compliments from family and friends via email or letters.
I opened up Ross’ correspondence with a bit of a smile, wondering what he’d thought of me becoming the editor. It had been a few years since I’d seen or heard from him.
I was expecting something like, “Hey, I picked up the tribal newspaper and saw you became the editor. Pretty cool.”
Instead, it was an email without an ice breaker. It was almost as if I was a person he’d never met.
Skip the handshake — here’s the sword.
Ross said he’d read a lot of my articles. He noted struggles in transitions, narratives, grammar, and spelling. He picked me apart, not long after I had just won a handful of writing awards from the Native American Journalists Association.
It wasn’t far from the dynamic I remembered last: He knew he had an edge on me, and flexed his intellectual muscles.
At first I was mad. Then I remembered it was just Ross being Ross. I am convinced he was just trying to make me better. Had the criticism been from anyone else, perhaps I would’ve just brushed it off.
The email ignited a fire in me that day that led to much-needed improvements. I became more of a student of the craft, reading more, practicing more and expanding more. As I progressed, I noticed an enhanced awareness of some of the issues I was having while writing.
I simply got better.
Almost a year after the encounter with Ross, some stories I wrote caught the attention of a former colleague, who at one point was my boss. He reached out to me on Facebook and said something along the lines of: “What did you do to your writing? I mean no offense, but it’s better now. You can tell you did something different.”
I felt embarrassed. A person who once oversaw my work knew there were improvements I could have made but didn’t bother to make me aware of them.
I felt like I unknowingly had a case of complacency that some professionals saw but declined to treat.
It was clear: I reeked.
Ross wasn’t a professional. He was more of a medicine man with an alternative form of treatment to offer. He set my mind ablaze that day, then dropped a metaphorical bucket of ice water on it.
I was a couple tiers up in the journalism world and had started building a home. He convinced me to torch it and keep climbing.
I thanked Ross for the criticisms in the return email and focused more on catching up. We then parted ways indefinitely, as was the norm.
Every now and then, I think about that exchange — more now than ever since his passing at age 35.
In the days following his death, I sent my condolences to his father. I also shared the impact Ross had on me and our dynamic.
He shared some stories and, perhaps knowing how I was feeling, said, “Ross would talk you up, you know? For your work at the Tribune.”
I smiled but felt bad, knowing I had never given Ross the credit he deserved. But that wasn’t ever our relationship, as I remembered it. In a way, we were just a couple warriors with Native pride, refusing to acknowledge an edge if we thought the other had it.
To be honest, it was an advantage Ross usually maintained. I didn’t like the inferiority, so I pretended to brush it off.
In retrospect, I wish I would have gotten past the pride. He gave me an invaluable gift. Gifts deserve a thank you.
Something tells me it’s not too late and he knows how I feel.
Cary Rosenbaum (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation) is the editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal. He writes “Coyote Stories” for the publication. Email him at caryrosenbaum@CTUIR.org.