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Student’s Journey Continues at Native American Music Awards

October 23, 2014 -- CNM student Tyra Preston grew up listening to country music. Her foster mom liked Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, while her foster dad enjoyed classic acts like George Jones, Hank Williams Sr. and the Everly Brothers.
Student’s Journey Continues at Native American Music Awards

Jul 17, 2015

Little did she know in those formative years that she would grow up to become a country singer herself, and potentially an award-winning star. 

Preston, who is a biology major at the Westside Campus, has been nominated for the Native American Music Awards in the country music category. The winners will be announced on Nov. 14 in upstate New York, where Preston will be on hand. 

“Whether I come home with a trophy or not, I feel like I’m already a winner,” she said.

The awards show, which is a Grammy Awards-style event for Native Americans, honors recordings released in the previous calendar year that encompass traditional and contemporary Native American music instrumentation and/or lyrics.

The route to the Native American Music Awards (NAMA) has been a fascinating journey for Preston, whose life has taken her to primitive sheepherding camps on the Navajo reservation to living with her foster parents in Utah, from weaving Navajo rugs to taking classes at CNM, and from taking care of an aging grandmother who spoke only Navajo to taking care of her own three kids in Rio Rancho.

Whether in Navajo or English, Preston has always been singing.

She was born on the reservation to a mother who worked away from home and until age 8 was raised primarily by her late grandmother, Mary K. Clah, and aunts and uncles in the small community of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. When she was 8, she became part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Indian Placement Program in which Native American children were placed in Mormon homes. She stayed with her foster family during the school years and went back to the reservation for summers. Preston lived with her foster mom and dad and their children until she graduated from high school.

At the end of May every year, Preston and the other Native American children participating in the program were put on a Greyhound bus and took the six-to-seven-hour ride home to their families on the reservation. Preston’s family are sheepherders and fiber artists. In the summers, she and her grandmother would herd some 150 sheep and goats to the top of Carrizo Mountain, south of the Four Corners monument where they would fatten up the flock on the summer grass

Memories of those summers on the mountain were full of weaving, collecting herbs and learning life survival skills. Preston’s grandmother provided an upright Navajo loom and taught her how to weave – first just stripes and then more complicated patterns followed. When as an 11-year-old girl, Preston complained and said she didn’t want to weave, her grandmother would tell her, “You got to keep weaving. One day when you have no money, your weaving will put food on the table and clothes on your back.” She became an expert weaver just like her great-grandmother, grandmother and uncle before her. And that day did come in her early 20s when, as a financially strapped single mom, she weaved for cash.

Back in Utah, Preston joined a house that was always musical. Her foster sister would play the piano and Preston and the other children would sing. No one ever told her that her voice was special, she said. She just enjoyed singing.

Years later, living in Rio Rancho and married with three children, she decided to go back to school and started attending CNM. She initially wanted to become a physical therapist assistant and later decided on being a physician’s assistant with the goal of returning to the reservation to provide medical care to her people. Currently a biology major at CNM, she plans to eventually transfer from CNM to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

In 2012, music came back in her life. A friend of her biological mom, Frank Smith, who owned a small recording studio on the reservation, recognized her singing talent and began urging her to let him record a demo CD.

“I finally said, ‘Yes,’ because he was so persistent in me recording a demo CD,” Preston said. He asked her to pick five of her favorite songs to sing. His son Tritt Smith did the backtracks of the songs and she sang the songs to the pre-recorded music – over a course of four different days in a hotel room.

As a member of the Native American Music Association, Smith submitted the CD in five categories for the NAMA -- unknown to Preston -- in January. He told her in March about the submissions.

A couple of weeks ago she was sitting in a CNM class and got a text message from Smith telling her to call him right away. She waited until the class was over to call, when he delivered the news that her CD was a finalist for the NAMA. She said she was so shocked she went to her car on the Westside Campus and started to cry.

To hear the song the Native American Music Awards selected from Preston’s CD click here. To visit the Native American Music Awards site, click here.