Native American Legends
Why the Opossum's tail is bare
A Cherokee Legend
Many, many years ago, the Possum had a long, bushy tail. He was
so proud of it that he combed it every morning. He sang about it
whenever the animals held a dance.
The Rabbit, who had had no tail since the Bear pulled it out, became
very jealous. She made up her mind to play a trick on the Possum.
A great council meeting had been planned. There was to be a dance
and all the animals were to be present. It was the Rabbit's task
to send out the news to everyone. As the Rabbit was passing the
Possum's house, she stopped to ask him whether he would be at the
dance. The Possum said yes, but he would come only if he could have
a special seat.
"I have such a handsome tail," he said. "I ought
to sit where everybody can see me."
The Rabbit promised to take care of the Possum's special seat.
She also promised to send someone to prepare the Possum's tail for
the dance. The Possum was very much pleased and agreed to attend.
The Rabbit immediately went off to see the Cricket. Now, the Cricket
was such an expert hair cutter, the Indians called him "the
barber." The Rabbit told the Cricket to go the next morning
and get the Possum's tail ready for the dance. She told the Cricket
exactly what to do.
In the morning the Cricket went to the Possum's house. "I
have come to get you ready for the dance, Possum," he said.
This pleased the Possum very much. He stretched himself out and
shut his eyes. The Cricket began to work on the Possum's tail. First
he carefully combed it. Then he quietly began to clip the Possum's
hair close to the roots! As he clipped, the Cricket wrapped red
ribbon around the tail to hold the loose hair in place. The Possum,
eyes tightly shut, didn't know what the Cricket was doing.
When night fell, the Possum went to the hall where the dance was
to be held. There he found the best seat was ready for him, just
as the Rabbit had promised. When the Possum's turn came to dance,
he stepped into the middle of the floor, grinning from ear to ear.
The drummers began to drum and the Possum began to sing, "See
my beautiful tail!" Everyone shouted. This pleased the Possum,
so he danced around the circle again and sang, "See what a
fine color my tail is!" Everyone shouted again and the Possum
danced around the circle once more. As he danced he sang, "See
how my tail sweeps the ground!"
The animals shouted more loudly than before. The Possum was delighted.
Now, to really show off his fur, he untied the ribbon. Then around
and around he danced, singing, "See how fine is the fur on
Suddenly everybody started to laugh. They laughed so long that
the Possum wondered why they were laughing. He looked around the
circle of animals. They were laughing at him! Then he looked down
at his tail. He saw that there was not a hair left upon it. It was
as bare as the tail of a lizard! He was so surprised and embarrassed
he could not say a word. He dropped to the ground, rolled over,
and played dead.
That is why the Possum's tail is bare and why he plays dead when
taken by surprise.
Here is the same story but told slightly differently.
In the beginning all living things - men, animals, plants and trees
- spoke the same language and behaved in much the same way. Animals,
like people, were organized into tribes. They had chiefs, lived
in houses, held councils and ceremonies.
Many animals had characteristics which we would not recognize today.
The rabbit, for example, was fierce, bold and cunning, and a great
mischief maker. It was through Rabbit's tricks that the deer lost
his sharp wolf-like teeth, the buzzard his handsome topknot of feathers
and the opossum his long, bushy tail.
Opossum was very proud of his tail which, in those days, was covered
with thick black fur. He spent long hours cleaning and brushing
it and composing songs about its beauty and vigor. Sometimes, when
he walked through the village, he carried his tail erect, like a
banner rippling in the breeze. At other times, he swept it low behind
him, like a train. It was useful as well as beautiful, for when
Opossum lay down to sleep, he tucked it under him to make a soft
bed, and in cold weather he folded it over his body to keep himself
Rabbit was very jealous of Opossum's tail. He, too, had once had
a long bushy tail but, during the course of a fight with Bear, he
had lost most of it and now had only a short fluffy tuft. The sight
of Opossum strutting before the other animals and swirling his tail
ostentatiously, filled Rabbit with rage and he made up his mind
to play a trick on him at the first opportunity.
At this time, when the animals still lived harmoniously together,
each had his appointed station and duty. Thus, Frog was leader in
the council and Rabbit, because of his speed, was employed to carry
messages and announce- ments to the others.
As was their custom from time to time, the animals decided to hold
a great council to discuss important matters and Rabbit, as usual,
was given the task of arranging the gathering and delivering the
invitations. Councils were also occasions for feasting and dancing
and Rabbit saw a way of bringing about Opossum's downfall.
When Rabbit arrived with the news of the meeting, Opossum was sitting
by the door of his lodge engaged in his favorite occupation - grooming
'I come to call you to the great council tomorrow, brother Opossum,'
said Rabbit. 'Will you attend and join in the dance ?'
'Only if I am given a special seat,' replied the conceited Opossum,
carefully smoothing some untidy hairs at the tip of his tail. 'After
all,' he went on, grinning maliciously at Rabbit, 'I have such a
beautiful long tail that I ought to sit where everyone can see and
Rabbit was almost beside himself with fury, but he pretended not
to notice the jibe and said, 'But of course, brother Opossum! I
will personally see to it that you have the best seat in the council
lodge, and I will also send someone to dress your tail specially
for the dance.'
Opossum was delighted by this suggestion and Rabbit left him singing
the praises of his tail even more loudly than usual.
Next, Rabbit called on the cricket, whom Indians call the barber,
because of his fame as an expert hair-cutter. Cricket listened with
growing amazement as Rabbit recounted his conversation with Opossum.
Like all the other animals, he found Opossum's vanity and arrogance
He began to protest, but Rabbit held up a paw and said, 'Wait a
moment. I have a plan and I need your help. Listen...', and he dropped
his voice as he told Cricket what he wanted him to do.
Early next morning Cricket presented himself at Opossum's door
and said that he had been sent by Rabbit to prepare the famous tail
for the council that evening. Opossum made himself comfortable on
the floor and stretched out his tail. Cricket began to comb it gently.
'I will wrap this red cord round your tail as I comb it,' he explained,
'so that it will remain smooth and neat for the dance tonight.'
Opossum found Cricket's ministrations so soothing that he fell
asleep, awakening just as Cricket was tying the final knot in the
red cord which now completely swathed his tail.
'I will keep it bound up until the very last moment,' thought Opossum
gleefully. 'How envious the others will be when I finally reveal
it in all its beauty!'
That evening, his tail still tightly wrapped in the red cord, Opossum
marched into the council lodge and was led to his special seat by
a strangely obsequious Rabbit.
Soon it was time for the dancing to take place. The drums and rattles
began to sound. Opossum stood up, loosened the cord from his tail
and stepped proudly into the center of the dance floor. He began
'Look at my beautiful tail!' he sang as he circled the floor. 'See
how it sweeps the ground!'
There was a great shout from the audience and some of the animals
began to applaud. 'How they admire me!' though Opossum and he continued
dancing and singing loudly. 'See how my tail gleams in the firelight!'
Again everyone shouted and cheered. Opossum began to have just
the merest suspicion that all was not quite as it should be. Was
there possibly a hint of mockery in their voices ? He dismissed
such an absurd idea and continued dancing.
'My tail is stronger than the eagle's, more lustrous than the raven's!'
At this the animals shrieked so loudly that Opossum stopped in
his tracks and looked at them. To his astonishment and chagrin they
were all convulsed with laughter, some leaning weakly on their neighbors's
shoulders, others rolling on the ground in their mirth. Several
were pointing at his tail.
Bewildered, Opossum looked down and saw to his horror that his
tail, his beautiful, thick, glossy tail, was now balk and scaly
like that of a lizard. Nothing remained of its former glory. While
pretending to comb it, the wily Cricket had snipped off every single
Opossum was so overcome with shame and confusion that he could
not utter a sound. Instead he rolled over helplessly on his back,
grimacing with embarrassment, just as opossums still do today, when
taken by surprise.
Here is the same story again, told slightly differently. -retold
by Barbara Shining Woman Warren
Possum once had a very long busy tail. He was so proud of it that
he combed it out every morning and he always sang about it at the
dances. Rabbit used to have a long busy tail too, but he lost his
in the frozen lake. Rabbit was jealous of Possum's tail, so he decided
to play a trick on Possum.
A great council meeting and dance was to be held; all the animals
were invited to attend. It was Rabbit's job to spread the news.
Passing Possum's place, he stopped to ask Possum if he intended
to come to the dance. Possum said, "Oh, I'll go if I have a
special seat. Because I have such a handsome tail I ought to sit
where everybody can see me."
Rabbit said he would definitely see to it and he would also send
someone to comb and dress Possum's tail for the dance. This pleased
Possum very much and he said he would be there.
Rabbit went straight way to the Cricket who was an expert hair-cutter;
he is known by the Cherokee as the "barber". Rabbit told
Cricket to go the very next morning and attend to Possum's tail
for the dance. Rabbit told Cricket exactly how he wanted Possum's
tail fixed, and then Rabbit went on about his mischief.
Bright and early the next morning, Cricket went to the Possum's
place. He said he had come to get Possum ready for the dance. So
Possum stretched himself out on the floor and shut his eyes while
Cricket dressed his tail. Cricket combed out the tail and began
to wrap a red string all around it to keep the fur smooth until
that night. But as he wound the string around Possum's tail, Cricket
was clipping off the hair close to the roots and Possum never knew
When it was time for the dance that night, Possum went to the townhouse
where the dance was to be held. Just as Rabbit had promised, the
very best seat was saved for Possum. Then Possum sat down and waited
for his turn to dance. When his turn came, he loosened the red string
from his tail and stepped into the middle of the dance circle.
The drummers began to drum and Possum began to sing. As he danced
around the Circle, he sang, "See my beautiful tail." Everybody
shouted and he danced around the Circle again and sang, "See
what a fine color it has." The animals shouted again and he
danced around another time, singing, "See how it sweeps the
ground." The animals shouted louder than ever, and Possum was
delighted. He danced around again and sang, "See how fine the
fur is." Everybody was laughing so long and so loud that Possum
stopped to see what was the matter. He looked around at the circle
of animals and they were all laughing at him. Then he looked down
at his beautiful tail. There wasn't a hair left on it; it was completely
bare! Possum was so upset and embarrassed that he fell over on the
ground in a dead faint...with a slight grin upon his face, as possums
do to this very day when taken by surprise.
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