TOPPENISH — As more than a dozen relatives and friends of Rosenda Sophia Strong gathered Saturday for photos at new murals near Yakamart honoring missing and murdered indigenous women and men, others slowly drove by for a closer look.
The gas station and convenience store at 111 Fort Road sits at one of the busiest — if not the busiest — intersections in Toppenish. It’s open 24 hours a day and sees a lot of foot traffic, too.
Completed earlier this month by artists Trevor Braden of Toppenish and Garrett Mesplie of Wapato, the vibrant murals that wrap an outbuilding on the Yakamart property are attracting a lot of attention. And that’s exactly the point.
“I think (they’re) beautiful because they bring more attention to commuters coming through,” Cissy Strong Reyes said Saturday. “I think it’s a good way to bring awareness to our community because it’s happening here.”
Her sister, Rosenda Strong, went missing from Toppenish in early October 2018 after getting a ride with an acquaintance to Legends Casino, just a few miles from her home. Her remains were found July 4 in an abandoned freezer in a field outside town. Her death has been classified as a homicide and the FBI is investigating.
Reyes and her brother Christopher Strong have worked tirelessly to demand justice for their sister, who is among dozens of Native women and men, girls and boys who have gone missing, have been found murdered or have died mysteriously on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation over decades. Many cases remain unsolved.
Native women throughout the United States suffer physical and sexual violence at disproportionate rates, and it’s unknown how many indigenous women and men have gone missing throughout the country and beyond American borders.
Reyes praised Joel John, the Yakamart manager, for commissioning the murals.
“The manager did an awesome job. We do need to bring more awareness to our community,” she said Saturday, echoing an earlier Facebook post in which she thanked the Yakama Nation and Yakamart for supporting her in breaking the silence on missing and murdered indigenous people.
Yakama Nation officials recognized the artists in a gathering at the murals on the morning of Feb. 3. The next day, Mesplie shared a dozen photos of the murals on his personal Facebook page. Braden also shared photos on his Facebook page Feb. 4.
“Had the honor to create 4 murals wrapped around one of the buildings at the Yakamart gas station in Toppenish, for the (missing and murdered indigenous women) movement,” Mesplie wrote, “which is a very important movement for our people and it was our pleasure to be able to help bring awareness to the movement. Hope everyone enjoys the murals.”
As Mesplie wrote on Facebook, the murals were “another great project in the books” in cooperation with Braden. The Yakamart manager approached them about the murals after they had already completed artwork at Yakamart, Mesplie said in a video interview with Yakama Nation Review reporter Ryan Craig. Yakama Nation Review reporter Carol Craig covered the Feb. 3 event and will have a story and photos in Wednesday’s paper.
“He’s very passionate about this movement and he thought it would be a cool idea to raise awareness,” Mesplie said of John in the video interview.
Braden, who participated in the 2019 Spilyay-Mi Native American and Western Art show, has been creating urban art for years under the street name Tabs. He and Mesplie work primarily with spray paint, mixing techniques they have learned from graffiti and incorporating them into Native American-style designs.
They have completed large, colorful murals throughout Yakima County. Along with their earlier murals at Yakamart, their work can be seen in Toppenish at the Yakama Nation Behavioral Health office and the Yakama Nation Cultural Center, and the 4 Directions convenience store and gas station in Wapato.
They also painted a mural at Sixth Street and East Lincoln Avenue in Yakima. Commissioned by several officers in the Yakima Police Department’s Gang Prevention Unit in the summer of 2018, the mural was tagged with red spray paint soon after Braden and Mesplie completed it. A year later, students painted a new mural in its place.
On Saturday, Axel Amador and Karman Strong, one of Rosenda Strong’s four children, were among those admiring Braden and Mesplie’s new Yakamart murals. The artists took different sides of the building, as they explained in the video interview.
“They’re really nice. They really went full-on with the details,” Amador said.