“When you hear ‘Nevada Heritage Award,’ you think of cowboys,” jokes Gary Haleamau.
But the Nevada Arts Council’s Folklife Program recently named Las Vegas residents and Hawaii natives Gary and Sheldeen Haleamau the recipients of the 2015 Nevada Heritage Award, recognizing the couple for their work in presenting and preserving Hawaiian culture.
It wasn’t much of a shock to those who know them or Vegas’ reputation as the Ninth Island. Still, the Haleamaus were surprised. “What the heck is a Hawaiian doing getting this?” Gary says. “It’s just awesome. I’m still blown away.”
The award, which carries a $3,500 stipend, honors Nevada artists whose achievements carry on traditions and have a positive impact on arts throughout the state. Folklorist Rachel Hopkin, who nominated Sheldeen, a traditional hula dancer and teacher, and Gary, an award-winning paniolo slack key guitarist and singer who has performed all over the world, called the couple “artists of great distinction who believe it is their responsibility to pass on the art, music and culture that will keep Hawaii alive on the mainland.”
The Haleamaus are a very active part of a strong local Hawaiian community. You’ll catch them performing or teaching at almost any Hawaiian or Pacific Islands festival around town, as well as at a standing Friday night gig at Island Flavor on South Durango Drive. Gary’s most recent recording, 2007’s Redeemed, won big at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards—essentially the Hawaiian Grammys. He said the heritage award money might go toward new recordings, or possibly more education for his family, which has called Vegas home for almost 15 years.
The family also organizes the annual Lei Day festival held in May at the California Hotel Downtown, and Gary is rehearsing for an upcoming world music collaborative performance with other artists at the Winchester Cultural Center.
“We try to do a lot, but this award really threw us for a curve,” he said. “It’s a really big deal.”