An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
November 4, 2000 - Issue 22
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 vigour. 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 warm.
Rabbit was very jealous of Opossum's tail. He, too, had once had a long bushy tail but, during the course of a 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 announcements 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 favourite occupation - grooming his tail.
'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 admire it.'
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 very tiresome.
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 centre of the dance floor. He began to sing.
'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 neighbour'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 lair.
Opossum was so overcome with shame and confusion that he could not utter a sound. Instead he rolled over helplessly on his back, grimmacing with embarrasment, just as opossums still do today, when taken by surprise.
Print and color your own picture of an historic possum!
Give Up? More clues...
The name 'opossum' was first adopted in western culture by Captain John Smith (of 'Pocahontas' fame) in 1608. It is based on the Algonquin name of the animal, 'apasum', meaning 'white animal'. The spelling has undergone a few changes over the years (opassom, ouassom, opussum, apossumes, ospason, opuson, oppassum, apossum) with the current spelling being settled upon in 1787.
John Smith's description of the opossum is certainly not the first, but it is the best-known and most quoted early description (1608).
"An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young."
One of the most unusual mammals that can be encountered along the river is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum (sometimes called the American opossum). This is North America's only representative of the order Marsupialia, the marsupial mammals, so called because of the external abdominal pouch called the marsupium within which the young develop. These are ancient animals with fossil remains known from 70 million years ago. This means relatives of the opossum in your backyard roamed the Earth with the great dinosaurs! Today Marsupials mainly occur in Australia (kangaroos, wallabies, etc.), and many people don't realize that we have a marsupial mammal here in New England, the shy and unassuming 'possum.
Opossums are covered with short silvery fur interspersed with longer course white-tipped hairs. Each foot has five toes equipped with a sharp claw except for the inner toe of the hind foot which has no claw and is opposable like the human thumb. This greatly aids the animal in climbing trees, a major part of its lot in life. The tail is bare and prehensile, allowing the possum to stabilize itself in the tree branches, though they do not swing from their tails like monkeys. Generally shy and slow moving, the opossum relies on stealth and a nocturnal lifestyle to avoid danger. When an opossum does find itself in danger it is not (quite) defenseless.
Opossums have large mouths which contain a number of sharp jagged teeth. (These look more dangerous than they are but no wild animal should be handled in any event.) In response to a threat however, an opossum is more likely to resort to a different tactic than biting, they pretend to be dead. This is actually quite comical to see, the animal will open its mouth and loll out it's tongue, looking for all the world like it is actually dead. Since many predators will only eat live prey this tactic of "playing possum" must be moderately successful.
Opossums will often live in hollow trees, bedding down during the day in dry leaves and debris and venturing out at night to hunt for food. They will eat a wide variety of things, insects, eggs and corn being among their favorites. They have also been accused of stealing chickens.
The Possum Pages
The Possum Network
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