WAPATO, Yakima County — In the nearly three years since Rosenda Sophia Strong disappeared, Cissy Strong Reyes has spoken out for her younger sister at awareness events and memorial gatherings for missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Her family was finally able to come together Friday for a memorial service at funeral home in Wapato.
“My sister didn’t deserve this. But I was glad she was found and is going home,” Reyes said.
Strong, a mother of four, went missing Oct. 2, 2018, after getting a ride with an acquaintance to nearby Legends Casino in Toppenish. Her remains were found in an abandoned freezer outside Toppenish on July 4, 2019, and were released Sept. 2 to the family by authorities. The case is unsolved, and the FBI is investigating.
On Saturday, Reyes and her brother Christopher Strong will bury Rosenda beside their mother on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, with relatives and friends leaving for Pendleton in the morning. Rosenda was a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and a descendant of the Yakama Nation.
“After I bury her, I will continue to fight for her justice and make sure I keep advocating for my sister because her life mattered,” Reyes said. “She was loved and she is missed every day.”
Reyes has been tough on herself at times. On Friday, as she and about four dozen others remembered Strong during the services, Reyes questioned whether she did the right thing the last time she talked to Strong.
“The last time I saw her, why did I hand her that money to go to the casino?” Reyes said, wondering if her sister would have stayed home if she hadn’t.
“She was wearing her bluejeans that I just bought her. She took my pink Nike sweater that night. She leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. I got to tell her, ‘I love you,'” she added. “After Oct. 4, I couldn’t feel my sister’s energy anymore and I knew something was wrong.”
Strong is among dozens of women and girls, men and boys who have disappeared, have been murdered or died mysteriously on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation. Some people have been missing for decades. Many cases remain unsolved.
The family thanked all who attended services Friday. Many wore red T-shirts with Strong’s image, and phrases like “Justice For Rosenda.” A few men wore traditional ribbon shirts. Reyes and other women wore traditional ribbon skirts. Others wore wing dresses, shawls and beaded items featuring red handprints, a symbol of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
They also wore masks, and followed COVID-19 protocols. Wapato is within the boundaries of the Yakama Nation, which recently reverted to Phase 2 of its COVID-19 reopening plan because of rising infections and limited hospital capacity in Yakima County.
Rosenda’s cousin, Roxanne White of Seattle, has deep connections to the Yakama Reservation and has returned many times for events honoring her and other missing people. While some might think the family has closure now, “I don’t know what closure is,” said White, who is an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people and their families.
“The pain will be there and the heartbreak will be there,” she said. “I watched my cousin hold back everything. Today if we shed tears, it’s because we’re finally here. That healing, it has begun.”
Her work, like that of so many others, never ends. “We have to continue to do the work that needs to come to ensure justice,” White said.
Yakama elder Ne’Sha Jackson, a former tribal judge who has spoken and prayed at several gatherings for missing and murdered Indigenous people, guided traditional preparations on Friday, along with singing and prayers.
“My heart is very glad to see each and every one of you here to support the family,” Jackson said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
When her family buries Strong on Saturday, a wooden cross handmade by Rick Trujillo Dominguez of Toppenish will mark the site. Dominguez is known on the Yakama Reservation as “the Cross Man” for making more than 200 crosses for Yakama and other tribal citizens, and friends.
Dominguez made two crosses for Strong, one for her burial and a smaller one for Reyes to take to events for missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“It hurts and it’s sad when you hear of a sister taken away, or a brother,” Dominguez said. “I hope and pray they catch who did this to her, and all the women out there. … There needs to be justice done for these people who are missing.”
Yakama Nation Councilmember Esther Moses-Hyipeer emphasized again, as others do over and over, how countless people in and beyond Indian Country have been impacted by the decades-old crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“I just want to share that what has taken place and how our loved one left here has happened many times before,” she said. “I lost my own sister such a manner. We lost a niece.”
Moses-Hyipeer encouraged those with information about Strong’s homicide, or other missing or murdered Indigenous people, to share that with authorities.
“This young woman paid a big price to bring attention to this type of activity. I know each and every one of us don’t want this to happen to anyone else again,” she said.