He deserves to be celebrated and remembered.*
Al Smith was born into the Klamath Tribe on November 6, 1919, in Modoc Point, Oregon. When he was seven, he was taken from his grandparents’ home and sent to boarding school as part of a federal policy designed to eradicate the Native identity of a new generation. When he was 35, the federal government “terminated” his tribe, allowing private exploitation of what had been tribal forestland. (The tribe was reinstated three decades later.) In between, Smith endured the Army, jail, and two decades of alcoholism.
In 1957, Smith stopped drinking and became active, first in Alcoholics Anonymous and then as a professional counselor, consultant, and advocate for Native people with drug and alcohol addictions. His work with Native people, including those in prison, was groundbreaking. By 1982, he had worked at the local level as a counselor providing treatment for recovering addicts and nationally as a consultant to tribes planning recovery programs. Newly married, with a new baby, he took a job at a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment program in Roseburg, Oregon.
Smith’s work had given him a deep exposure to diverse Native spiritual traditions including the Sweat Lodge, the Sun Dance, and the Native American Church, which uses peyote—the “divine cactus”—as a sacrament. These traditions often form the core of a Native person’s recovery. Religious use of peyote, in particular, is older than most American religions, including Christianity. Medical studies have shown that ceremonial use of peyote, in particular, is a powerful boost to the chances a Native patient will recover from addiction.
The Roseburg program hired Smith to help provide culturally relevant treatment, like the sweat lodge, to Native clients. He wasn’t looking for a landmark case; he had a wife and a new baby. He was swept into a constitutional controversy because a non-Native colleague, Galen Black, attended a peyote ceremony and told colleagues at the agency that he thought it would be a means of treating alcoholism and addiction. His bosses fired him on the spot. To the white people who ran the agency, peyote was not a religious exercise—it was an “illegal drug,” and Black was no longer fit to counsel recovering clients.
Then the bosses called Smith in and brusquely warned him that if he went to a ceremony and ingested peyote he would lose his job too. Not long after, Smith was invited to a ceremony. He had been warned, but the tone of disrespect to an Ancient Native faith rankled. He later recalled his immediate response: “You can’t tell me that I can’t go to church!”
Smith was not one to be intimidated. He attended the ceremony, took the sacrament, came back to work, and was promptly fired. Then he applied for unemployment.
The agency opposed his unemployment claim, saying the ceremonial use of peyote was “misconduct.” The state of Oregon, obsessed by the war on drugs, joined in the case (even though it wasn’t clear that Oregon law even prohibited what Smith and Black had done). State courts at every level found their conduct was protected by the First Amendment and ordered the state to pay them their benefits. The state refused to accept this, and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court not once but twice.