Preserving a tradition

“It just hits you in your heart,” says Julia Gatliff of the sound of a Native American flute. “Some become quite enchanted with the sound and even with the person making it. That’s why these handcrafted flutes, each with its own unique sound…its own ‘voice’…were traditionally used by Native American men to court women.”

In fact, Julia’s own passion for the native flute led her to the man she married. The classically trained flutist discovered Native American flute music in the early 1980s: “It was like an awakening, a gift to me as a musician.” In 2003, she attended a workshop on native flutes in Oklahoma City. While there, she visited the home of the late Dr. Richard Weston Payne, a classical musician and amateur ethnographer.

“Dr. Payne was such an important figure in our passion for native flutes that Robert and I spent all three days of the workshop at his house,” Julia explains. “That’s where we met and, six months later, were married,” Robert adds, “in Dr. Payne’s home in front of his flute collection.”

Together, the Gatliffs joined the Lone Star Flute Circle, one of about 120 groups throughout the U.S. and abroad that provide a social atmosphere for people interested in Native American and world flutes. In 2012 Julia and Robert became the group’s organizers. Lone Star Flute Circle members gather monthly at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church and play a few times a year at various locations around Central Texas, including at the Tribal Impressions store on the Square. Julia also plays regularly in the lobby of St. David’s Georgetown Hospital, where she loves exposing people to music they may have never heard before. “I have always had a strong response to the sound of these flutes in every way imaginable—physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually,” says Julia. “Their sound and the music they create seems to break down social barriers,” Robert adds. “The sound of these flutes is emotive, like a human voice but without words, like the cries and songs of all creatures.”

Along with introducing people to Native American flute circle, the Gatliffs are also dedicated to promoting the future of the Native American flute. That dedication comes from the transformations they have seen take place in almost everyone they know who plays a Native American flute. “The peace and joy the music brings was nearly lost due to a vanishing way of life,” says Julia. The instrument’s simplicity and ease of play also fuels their work as board members of the FluteTree Foundation, a 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization whose mission is to “support the Native and North American flute community with all its diversity.” Julia explains that she and Robert’s desire to preserve the history of these flutes come from learning the origin stories of the instrument, most of which revolve around love and courtship. “Who doesn’t like a good love story?” she asks.

The foundation’s strategic goals include attracting more youth to Native American flute music. Robert says, “Our outreach program has picked up where Dr. Payne left off in the mid-1900s, and we’ve already provided a thousand flutes to the children of the Cherokee Nation in Tennessee.” The group is currently applying for a grant to help take the outreach to a national level.

Meanwhile, the Gatliffs continue to share this beautiful music with Central Texans and offer an open invitation to the monthly gathering of Lone Star Flute Circle. “Everyone is welcome,” says Julia, “no experience required.” You don’t even have to play a flute. “Drums, guitars, even iPhone apps are welcome. We love anything that lets your soul express music.”

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