TOPPENISH, Wash. - Rosenda Sophia Strong was missing for a little over nine months; while many knew she was gone, no one felt her absence quite like her family and friends.
Her loved ones felt every single one of those 24,451,200 seconds she was gone, searching for her and wondering where she was or if she was okay.
That search came to an end Friday when authorities announced that Rosenda’s body had been found in a freezer in a remote area off of Highway 97 near Toppenish.
“That's not something I wanted to carry my sister with,” Cissy Reyes said. “I wanted to grow old with her. She's my sister.”
Reyes and other family members held a vigil Sunday night for the 31-year-old mother-of-four, speaking about her life, her death and how much she is missed.
“She didn't deserve to end up in a freezer ... Nobody deserves to go missing,” Reyes said. “Now she's home and not a lot of people get that, so today was bittersweet.”
Reyes says what she misses most about Rosenda is her text messages and phone calls: her voice.
When Reyes would tell Rosenda she needed to hear her voice, her sister would pick up the phone and give her a call.
“She'd be like, ‘Hi … I love you,’” Reyes said. “That's what I miss the most because nobody does that with me anymore.”
At the vigil, Reyes’s cousin and activist Roxanne White spoke first, with family and friends following soon behind her.
White sang ‘Sister, Sister,’ a song dedicated to missing and murdered indigenous women:
“Sister, sister, I want you to know...You’re so strong and beautiful. I gotta know, where did you go? I think of you every day...Since you’ve gone away.”
More than 100 people were gathered together in Pioneer Park in Toppenish, about three miles from where Rosenda’s body was found.
Family spoke of her smile, her outgoingness, her love for her loved ones. And when the sun went down on the vigil, they lit candles for Rosenda.
“Sister, sister, I want you to know..."
On Oct. 2, 2018, Rosenda left her sister’s home to go to Legends Casino with an acquaintance. That’s the last time her sister saw her alive.
“It needs to stop … You can't just take somebody because you want to,” Reyes said. “You can't take somebody's life and think it's okay.”
“You’re so strong and beautiful…”
While her body was found on the Fourth of July, it wasn’t identified until Friday, when the Yakima County coroner’s office was able to compare dental records and found a match.
Rosenda is one of dozens of women missing or killed on the Yakama Nation Reservation.
A landmark report from the Washington State Patrol released in June found at least 20 indigenous women are missing in Yakima County. Activists believe that number is closer to 32.
“I gotta know, where did you go?...”
The epidemic of violence against indigenous women is so prevalent, murder is listed as the third-leading cause of death for Native American women by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As part of the report, four Yakama Nation Tribal Council members — making up the MMIW Committee — sent a letter May 1 to the state governor regarding their records of missing and murdered indigenous people.
Tribal officials reported six unsolved cases involving missing and murdered men and women and 18 historical cold cases that remain unsolved.
“Yakama Nation did not create this problem, but we are dedicated to partnering with local and federal agencies to continue identifying solutions to the multiple issues that contribute to the tragedy of losing our Native women and girls,” tribal officials said in the letter.
Walking through the center of the circle Sunday night, White remarked that there were no Yakama Nation officials at the vigil.
“Where’s our leaders?” White said. “How do we make change happen here if our leaders who have power don’t go above and beyond and show up for our families?”
“I think of you every day....”
While the search is over, the family is nowhere near finished. They still have many unanswered questions and are still awaiting justice for Rosenda’s death.
“It doesn’t stop yet. We want justice. We want people to be held accountable that hurt her,” White said. “Those people, their days are numbered in the free world because we’re not gonna rest until justice is served.”
On Friday, the FBI issued KAPP-KVEW a statement about the investigation into Rosenda's killing:
“The FBI has been working with the Yakama Nation Police Department to locate Rosenda Strong, who was reported missing in October 2018. Today, the Yakima County Coroner’s office identified Ms. Strong’s remains. The FBI is continuing to investigate this matter with our local partners.”
Rosenda is a descendant of the Yakama Nation and a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Because the investigation into Rosenda's killing is still open, the family hasn't been able to take her remains and lay her to rest.
“I don’t wish this pain on anybody, even those who did my sister wrong: it’s unbearable,” Reyes said. “I loved her more than anything.”
When her body is released, family members say Rosenda will be taken back to the Umatilla reservation to be buried alongside her mother.
“Since you’ve gone away….”