Native American Dr. Leslie Gray practices psychotherapy informed by principles of indigenous healing

By Jessica Semaan

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the    Woodfish Institute   . Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

There are times when you listen to someone speak, whether through a book or in person, and you resonate with every word, yet you realize that you could have never articulated them, or connected the dots to get to them. 

This was me, that Thursday morning, during my Transpersonal Psychology class, when Dr. Leslie Gray, a visiting instructor, came to share with us the Native American medicine wheel. As soon as she entered the classroom, I was jolted awake. Her powerful posture and fast movement captured the class’ attention. Her eyes that feel as if she is looking through your soul, and the no nonsense, preciseness and wisdom of her words, left many of us still talking about that three-hour experience weeks after it happened. 

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the    Woodfish Institute   . Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

She had asked us not to take notes, as in her tradition teachings are transmitted orally. Suffice it to say, this is the class I remember the most. I felt compelled to ensure that her words and her wisdom reach more people, especially women, so I proposed to interview her for Seismic Sisters. We met up at her office in San Francisco. 

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist who has studied with medicine people and elders from various tribal backgrounds. Based in San Francisco, she is also the executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute


Jessica Semaan: Can you share a little bit about your path to where you are now, specifically starting from a clinical fellowship at Harvard to practicing psychotherapy informed by principles of indigenous healing?

Dr. Leslie Gray: Though I was pursuing an education in social sciences, I had been around indigenous healing and always had both going on in my head at the same time. A turning point was when I read a book by H.F. Ellenberger titled, “The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry”, in which the author purports to trace contemporary psychiatry from shamanism to hypnotism to mesmerism to Freud. The book starts with the description of a great Kwakiutl healer. As I read on however, it began to dawn on me that what was being described was not an evolution but a de-evolution—moving away from a sophisticated application of the spectrum of consciousness for healing to a binary notion of "conscious and unconscious".

I presented a paper on shamanic healing in my first year of graduate school, and I was fortunate that the professor understood it because my classmates laughed nervously at what they perceived as primitive. Oddly, tolerating the temporary discomfort of their laughter seemed to clarify for me my own indigenous background and worldview. I decided then and there to seek out traditional healers and learn from them. I was lucky that the first healer I learned from was wise, gifted and highly skilled. That provided me with a standard that I applied in subsequent years of studying with elders and healers from other tribes.

Semaan: What does it mean for women to come into their power? Could you speak about how you define power in that case?

Gray: In this conversation we are limited by the English language, which makes it difficult to discuss situations with equal distribution of power. In English the word "power" is used equally for personal strength and for dominance over others, unlike the case in some other major languages. In the U.S. right now when a woman talks seriously about power, she is often responded to as if she were seeking to be authoritarian, whereas when a man talks about power he is simply responded to as an authority. And then women are made to fear the dreaded B word, and begin to behave in ways that weaken them in order to avoid being seen as controlling or dominant. In the West, fear of being labeled and rejected goes a long way toward stunting women's dreams and accomplishments, whether within the realms of business or healing.

Semaan: Many of our readers are actually women in the workplace. What do you have to say to them about their own power and how that could look?

Gray: That's where indigenous spirituality comes in. The indigenous relationship to spirit is immediate and personal. It employs a broad array of consciousness alteration techniques including contemplation, ritual movement, trance states, direct hypnosis, plant medicine, et al. that can allow ordinary reality to recede long enough to directly access spirit. Male controlled state religions basically tell you that access to that which is holy should be mediated by a cleric, a priest or guru or rabbi, etc. and those are usually men. With indigenous methods, a woman can strengthen herself directly, can receive power directly. When she has that rock solid center of spirit, she becomes less dependent on external approval.

Semaan: Do you think men are afraid of our power as women?

Gray: I don't think there is a shred of benefit to be derived from trying to look into male heads or hearts. You can't rely on someone identifying as a man, or having male genitalia, as accurate predictors of their respect for women's power. Nor can you rely on females to respect it. We need to make direct changes to a system which is permeated with misogyny. And we need to do so now. You cannot wait for an oppressor to take their foot from your neck, you must throw it off. On the societal level this means political elections and institutional promotions, but it starts with the individual woman getting in touch with her own ground of being and infusing the power that comes from that into her specific interests and abilities.

At the core of all that is finding your courage. Courage starts in the heart. The word comes from the French word for heart, "coeur". This is not something you acquire from academia or social ranking or work. You need to get to a still place in yourself to access the strength that is our inheritance from Mother Earth.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the    Woodfish Institute   . Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Semaan: I wanted to touch a little bit more on a different topic, on chronic pain, for over 70% of the people who suffer from chronic pain are women. I've been reading a lot about how women’s pain is diminished or silenced. I was wondering if you have some thoughts about where could the chronic pain come from, especially when there is no clear medical explanation. 

Gray: Over the years I've had many referrals for chronic pain, partly because I had some success in turning around chronic pain in myself that was the result of a car accident. It's a complex topic that is physical/psychological/ecological/legal/pharmaceutical. Long term pain particularly highlights our divorcement from nature, because its remedy is often less about technical interventions and more about healing over time, which is not the focus of Western medicine. It involves the complexity of doing what it takes for the immune system to maintain equilibrium after reparative interventions. Also, powerlessness results in pain which becomes expressed somatically. It would be very interesting to see the degree to which women suffer from chronic pain in comparison with men once women have equal power in the U.S.

Semaan: I recently watched a documentary called “The Edge of Democracy” by Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa. She's documenting what has been happening in Brazil with the imprisonment of Lula da Silva and the fall of president Dilma Rousseff, the rise of their equivalent of Trump and how the new president is pulling back on enforcement and environmental protection of the Amazon, leaving it open to increased exploitation. The film suggests we are at the end of democracy. 

Gray: Democracy is so much older than the handful of years in which European hierarchical values have attempted to overrule Indigenous egalitarian values in the Americas. In the U.S., the brilliance and endurance of Iroquoian democracy led to it being studied and copied by the European colonists. By 1776, Benjamin Franklin had attended the governmental meetings of the Iroquois for 13 years and his accounts of these proceedings were among his most popular books. Key to the Iroquoian system was equal governing power between women and men and the prohibition of slavery. In my opinion, the "Founding Fathers’" disparagement of those who devised this ingeniously balanced democracy as a group of “ignorant savages" led to terrible errors from which the U.S. still suffers hundreds of years later.

We were telling those who were trying to form a union like ours that you need to have a "spiritual center" to your democracy for it to last. Unfortunately, the European colonists reduced this noetic insight to "religion" insisting on "separation of church and state". It is in fact about reverence for the principle of balance in the universe. They created a democracy built on the subjugation of women, indentured servitude and slave labor. Moreover, the spiritual void was then filled with profit, rather than balance, as the core value. In this they created a system similar to communism in that they both rest on economic determinism.

Semaan: We often stick to systems we have because the only alternative to democracy is fascism or communism.

Gray: It's a false alternative. The concept of balance of power goes by the wayside in both. We've had a chance now to look at communism in practice, and its forms of government seem to lead to similar tyrannical tendencies, i.e. dominant hierarchies with women as second class citizens. They both engage in uncritical and usually unspoken acceptance of a pyramid model of human relations rather that the model of a circle. It is important for all structures of governing, and of political activism, to examine the underlying model of their endeavors. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for readability.

Jessica Semaan is a freelance writer, author, poet and performer living in San Francisco. Chronicling her journey of healing from trauma, she has over 50,000 people following her writing on Medium. Jessica’s debut book. Child of the Moon was published in 2018. She also is studying to become a psychotherapist.

Dr. Leslie Gray, Executive Director and Founder of the Woodfish Institute, is a Native American psychologist who has studied with medicine people and elders from various tribal backgrounds. She advocates and embodies a new vision of health care—the integration of ancient healing and modern medicine. Dr. Gray has a private practice in San Francisco, California, teaches workshops and seminars worldwide, and conducts travel/study programs to ancient sites. She has lectured at universities including the University of California at Berkeley, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and California Institute of Integral Studies. Telephone: (415) 928-4954, San Francisco, California. Email: