A conversation with the man who portrays Chief Slac himself on Joe Cain Day

Wayne Dean has sported the feathers and leather-clad outfit for 38 years as Slacabamarinico, the face Indian chief and Mobile Mardi Gras icon first invented by Joe Cain after the Civil War.

But at the age of 80, there are many questions about Dean’s future as Chief Slac.

How much longer will he be physically the chief?

When will Mobile have a rare feather laying ceremony at Old Church Street Cemetery?

Who will be Slac V?

Dean isn’t ready to retract the feathers. In fact, he’s still partying and having a good time aboard the coal wagon that will be leading the Joe Cain procession today.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I enjoyed it,” Dean said during a recent interview at the Mobile Carnival Museum, home of the ongoing Of Men And Myths exhibit, which explores the history and mythology of Cain shows and Mobile Mardi Gras lore.

“I’m not ready to give it up yet,” Dean said. “I’m having too much fun. (The Chief) gets invited to places I don’t go. As long as I’m able and until I feel someone is worthy for the role, you have Slac IV.”

The character remains a part of Mobile’s Mardi Gras traditions and is celebrated each year during the quirky Joe Cain Day, always celebrated on the Sunday before Mardi Gras.

The day is the creative product of the late folklorist and artist Julian Rayford, whose 1962 retelling of Mobile’s Mardi Gras in “Chasin’ the Devil Round a Stump” and whose efforts to exhume Cain’s body from Bayou La Batre and move it to Mobile helped form much of modern Cain mythology.

“There’s historical reality and there’s myth,” said Cart Blackwell, curator of the Mobile Carnival Museum, when comparing Cain – the man and mythology created by Rayford – to St. Nicholas or Santa Claus.

“That’s part of the charm of it,” Blackwell said. “That’s what Mardi Gras is, a bunch of sparkles that makes Mobile’s special season so unique.”

And it’s Cain and the former Slacabamarinicos that are fueling Joe Cain Day’s popularity.

“There’s something special about the energy and excitement in the streets of Mobile on Joe Cain Day,” said Sandy Stimpson, Mayor of Mobile. “It’s a day that embodies our city’s motto: ‘Born to Celebrate.’ The ‘People’s Parade’, the walk marches, the merry widows and all the celebrations that follow are unique mobile traditions that commemorate the revival of Mardi Gras in our community.”

The Mayor said, “To me, Joe Cain Day represents the central role that Mobilians play in our unique Mardi Gras traditions.”

Dean will be the fourth and senior Slacabamarinico to don his feathers and board the coal wagon for his 37th procession. He will once again ride with the foot marchers and in front of the Joe Cain Parading Society following the procession through Mobile. Everything starts around 2:30 p.m

The following is a Q&A with Dean:

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Q: Is a Slac V in the works?

A: It’s in the works. I don’t know who it is. The role has changed over the years. It was basically the Joe Cain Day Procession. And then we started doing TV occasionally and then going to the schools and lecturing to try and build on (Joe Cain Day). But it wasn’t the role it is today. Now it’s about appearances at various clubs, conventions and working with the city and whether they need the boss to get to a convention of 2,000 people.

Wayne Dean gives high fives to customers of the Heroes Sports Bar and Grille during a parade Sunday, October 11, 2009 in downtown Mobile. The parade was part of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Dean and his portrayal of Chief Slacabamarinico. (file photo)

It’s a different role (than it was years ago) and whoever takes it on has to take it seriously and not get political. It has to be non-political. You can’t even politicize in your personal life. You will always be associated with this role.

The chief is a character that becomes that person as soon as he puts on these feathers. Both in the reality of the character and in the mythology of the character. We don’t really know if it was based on an actual Native American, or a completely fictional name invented by Julian Rayford, or a combination of both. But he has evolved in modern times since the character reappeared in 1967. People see him like Santa Claus. They want their picture taken with him. And as you see in this museum, his image is everywhere here.

Q: What would you say to Joe Cain if you could ask him a question?

A: I would like to know if what you say about him is really true. Did he really disguise himself in this period around 1800? Was it to defy Union troops? Was it because he wanted to have a good time looking uninhibited on Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans? I would like to know, ‘Why did you do that?’ The follow-up question, ‘What year was it?’ There is confusion. It was 1866, 67 or 68. We may never know.

Q: There are also questions as to whether he was a Confederate soldier?

A: That’s because there are conflicting records of Joe Cain being in the Confederate Army. According to the documents, he was on leave because he was a market clerk. This does not mean that he had to claim this exception. There are thoughts that were in a local militia and never left the city. But his signature at the history museum is all over the papers as a clerk throughout the Civil War period.

Q: Wearing the feathers has taken you across the country, and others have portrayed the chief during their events in Mobile. Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

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A: It’s kind of interesting that every time I go to a carnival ball that has a chief on the tableau, and that’s common, I always try to get my picture with him. Or you. If there was a women’s group, there is a female boss. That opens up the possibility that Chief V could be a woman. If “himself,” as Joe Cain put it, is meant to be a person of all men, then why couldn’t he be a woman?

Q: Was Joe Cain Day himself a product of the ’60s?

James “Red” Foster dressed as Chief Slacabamarinico in 1985. (Archive)

A: If you go back in time and compare it to other events, it was a 1960’s product. But it was also a product that almost died. Judy (Rayford) envisioned it as strictly a foot procession. In the first year there were probably 40-60 people, if any, in the procession in which they (Cain) were first reburied. In the second year there were very few in the procession. It just wasn’t gaining momentum. I was working in marketing for the state at the time, and that was at the time when the newspapers had almost everything interesting (in them) and had an interesting section that covered (Mardi Gras) and it seemed like 25,000 radio stations. They were always looking for things. We basically started a campaign. Red (Foster) went to the TV stations and danced. I would have conversations. We went to 4th grade and he talked a little bit and danced and kept going. We had arrived at the State Capitol in Montgomery and (Foster) was dancing around Lurleen Wallace’s statue throwing beads and everyone came out of their offices. We would make proclamations that the Mobile Press register would cover with Red in the governor’s chair. It started exploding until it got out of control.

Red was the guy who didn’t have a problem walking into the crowd and talking to anyone. Judy had no problem with that. This is a key figure of the chief. He is a character for all people.

Wayne Dean Sr., dressed as Cain’s main Indian character, Slacabamarinico, leads the march at the annual Joe Cain Day Procession in downtown Mobile, Alabama on Sunday, February 15, 2015. (file photo)

Q: The main reason why Joe Cain Day differs from all Mardi Gras days is that?

A: This is due to its origin as a public holiday for all people and the People’s Parade. Even today, when marching, you can come down and join in without paying a dime. You just have to dress up or not and join the procession. This spirit made it the people’s parade, although now the units are just like another parade behind the procession. Nevertheless, the units are different groups of people. It’s not an organization. You have to coordinate that. But it’s the spirit of, ‘We can come down today and have a great day, and it’s people’s day.’ Joe Cain Day is the day of the people.

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One of Cain’s Merry Widows kneels by his headstone in the Church Street Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama during Joe Cain Day celebrations in 1976. The organization was formed in 1974 and is considered the most secretive group in Mobile Mardi Gras. (file photo).

Q: Explain the Merry Widows’ call to celebration?

A: The Merry Widows are very unique to Mobile Mardi Gras. A widow was present at the first procession in 67. Jimmie McWhorter, she worked in the library. When Judy assembled the procession during the funeral, when they reburied him, (McWhorter) said, “he really needs a widow.” It was like, ‘Okay, we did that and it’s over.’ A few years later in 1974 they got together and for some reason decided to get together and become Joe Cain’s Merry Widows. They are probably Mobile’s most limited and by far the most secretive company. There are only 20 of the girls. Even when interviewed by television or radio, they never give their real names. Their veils always hide their identities. They have a Southern name they pass by. They all claim to have loved Joe the most.

Rev. Wayne Dean, who portrays Joe Cain in his role as Chief Slacabamarinico, dances with the Joe Cain loved ones during the opening ceremony of the Joe Cain Cafe Tuesday, June 3, 2008 at the Battle House Hotel in downtown Mobile, Ala . (file photo).

The funny part about widows is that there are 20 of them on Joe Cain Day, but Joe Cain only had one wife. He was married to the love of his life, Elizabeth Rabby, until they both died. You do such crazy things.

Then, a few years later, come the Mistresses that Joe Cain couldn’t take. But they were the ones Joe Cain really loved the most but couldn’t talk about.

Wayne Dean, who portrays Mardi Gras character Chief Slacabamarinoco, is seen with Merry Widow Salome at Joe Cain’s home in downtown Mobile on Joe Cain Day, February 14, 2021. (file photo)

Q: Who is Slac IV’s favorite widow?

A: Whoever is hugging me right now is my favorite.

Q: Joe Cain would probably get heartburn from all this work?

A: Yes, he would. That’s another good question: What would you think if your name was commonplace? Or is your picture being posted everywhere on mobile? The other thing I’ve thought about a lot, and knowing Julian Rayford, there are two things he wanted to achieve for Joe Cain. He wanted to give him the credit he deserved for reviving Mardi Gras. I think we succeeded. The name is a household name. The other thing is that he wanted to create something for everyone to contribute to. I don’t know how he would feel about how it turned out today, but we certainly have a lot of people out there.