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Former legislator Ruth Buffalo visits Leonard Peltier in prison, joins chorus calling for his release

Leonard Peltier was convicted in of first-degree murder in the deaths of two FBI agents in the 1970s.

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Former Rep. Ruth Buffalo talks Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Atomic Coffee, Fargo, about her recent trip to Florida to meet with Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist incarcerated since 1977.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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FARGO — When Ruth Buffalo goes on long trips, she usually brings her daughter. But when she was recently granted permission to visit Leonard Peltier in federal prison, she decided to go alone.

With all the attention Peltier’s case has received since 1977, her fear didn’t come from what was inside the U.S. Penitentiary, Coleman, near Orlando, Florida. Her thoughts turned to: Who might be watching?

“The nature of Peltier’s case and what we are up against is huge. It’s a huge injustice in the system, so yeah, I had thoughts about my safety initially,” said Buffalo, a former North Dakota state representative.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to put my daughter in harm’s way. Questions I had, like would someone follow me from the airport? Those kinds of things crossed my mind,” she said.

Peltier, now 78, from Grand Forks, is a Native American activist convicted of murder in 1977 following a trial that took place in Fargo. Since his conviction, numerous appeals and pleas for clemency have been made from Native Americans, international celebrities and even some judicial officers involved in prosecuting his case.

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A mustached man in a white shirt leans against a window frame.
A "Free Leonard Peltier" sign seen in Detroit in March 2009.
Kansas City Star/TNS

Peltier was convicted in a Fargo federal courthouse by an all-white jury for the murders of two FBI agents during a shootout June 26, 1975, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Two of his co-defendants were found not guilty due to self-defense.

Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment , according to the FBI.

Buffalo’s trip to visit Peltier came about a month after a group of seven U.S. senators urged President Joe Biden to commute the man’s sentence.

Buffalo received permission to visit Peltier on Dec. 21, and after the new year, she flew down to make the visit.

“I figured I’d jump at the opportunity to go as soon as I could, just didn’t want to miss an opportunity and offer support,” Buffalo said. “But there have been so many people carrying the torch for him for so long, I don’t want to be in front of it.”

Before she flew to Florida, Buffalo was already involved politically with the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators and the North Dakota Democratic-NPL State Convention in trying to free Peltier.

Read more stories about Leonard Peltier
Leonard Peltier was sentenced to life in prison after claims he killed two FBI agents. But questions linger about alleged misconduct during his trial.

When she landed in Orlando, she had bad news waiting for her.

“The crazy thing was, when I landed, someone sent me a clemency list for 2022, and he wasn’t on it. I was in tears," she said. "I’m new to this, and there are people who have passed away fighting for his freedom for decades. My frustration is nothing compared to them."

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After 45 years in maximum security prisons, Peltier seemed to be in good spirits over the three days they met, Buffalo said. Although she declined to go into detail about many of the topics they discussed, she told The Forum that Peltier has kept a sense of humor and his wit.

He arrived without manacles, wearing a yellow or tan jumpsuit and prison-issued slippers. She bought him hot meals while they talked, like a $6 hamburger and $4 soda. No notebooks, pens or cellphones were allowed, and to sign forms she had to use a bendable rubber pencil.

With a distance of about 6 feet separating them, the conversations were difficult at times. All around her, she witnessed families reuniting, many of whom were excited and happy. Frequently, more than 20 inmates were talking at once.

Conditions inside the prison are poor, Buffalo said. Peltier has a cell mate, and the prison frequently is in lockdown. When he can, Peltier enjoys painting, she said.

“He just looked like a relative. And he is not giving up. I was inspired by meeting him. So many similarities with relatives with the same stories, about boarding schools and injustices,” Buffalo said.

“He really gets fired up about the injustice. The common theme of the visit was the truth. He wants the truth out there. People have been shut down throughout this whole process, because they told the truth,” she said.

“There was a gentleness about him, a kindness, but also a fierceness, wanting to stand up for everybody,” Buffalo said.

Peltier told Buffalo that if released, he would return to Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in Belcourt.

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“That’s where he grew up. He went to boarding schools; he was 9 years old when he went to the Wahpeton Indian School. He was forced there,” Buffalo said.

Over the past several decades , clemency for Peltier has received support from many faith and human rights leaders, including Pope Francis, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Saint Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Coretta Scott King.

Leonard Peltier headlines from The Forum over the last 40 years. Kim Hyatt / The Forum
Leonard Peltier headlines from The Forum over the last 40 years. Kim Hyatt / The Forum

James H. Reynolds , the U.S. attorney who oversaw Peltier’s prosecution on appeal, stated Peltier’s continued incarceration was unjust. The late Judge Gerald Heaney, who presided over Peltier’s 1986 appeal in the Eighth Circuit, also called for the commutation of Peltier’s sentence, according to the Chicago Tribune.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, renewed efforts to commute Peltier’s sentence, saying he has spent more than half his life behind bars and now suffers from numerous health conditions.

Although Peltier has remained insistent that he is not guilty, he has been denied many attempts at clemency. He has also been repeatedly denied parole, and in 2009, federal prosecutors, including then-U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, who is now North Dakota attorney general, said Peltier was "an unrepentant, cold-blooded murderer."

Those who believe he is not guilty work for his release, saying his incarceration symbolizes the systemic problems with how Native Americans are treated within the criminal justice system.

“At times, thinking about what we’re up against trying to get Leonard’s freedom, it seems like a big task. It can get overwhelming. And seeing him sitting there in front of you,” Buffalo paused a moment to collect herself.

“We still see the issues today, lingering, but back then there was so much. Some of the stories he shared from back then, Native women and girls blatantly targeted and raped by people in power, and there was nothing anyone could do, nothing ever got done,” she said.

Becoming emotional, Buffalo seemed lost in her thoughts.

“Today, there are better ways of covering things up. 'Racism doesn’t exist in North Dakota,'” Buffalo laughed at what she said was a joke. “It’s just really sad when you think about how poorly Natives are treated. At times less than human.

“I will continue to push for his freedom,” she said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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