“How the Possum Lost His Tail”
–a traditional Cherokee story for stick puppets.
–Lesson by Barbara Pangle, Kindergarten teacher at East Franklin School, Franklin N.C., and by Barbara R. Duncan, Ph.D.
For Kindergarten – First Grade with suggestions for older students.
Meets the following objectives:
Listening, identifying characters, sequencing, speaking, understanding other cultures, studying Native Americans
What to do:
- Introduction: Explain to students that different cultures tell different stories about animals. They may have heard stories about the ant and the grasshopper or other animals. Cherokee parents and grandparents tell this story about the possum to children to teach an important lesson. Listen for the lesson.
- Read aloud the story as told by Freeman Owle in Living Stories of the Cherokee (below). If you pause briefly at the end of each line, you will sound like the storyteller.
- Xerox line drawings of a possum, cricket, skunk, squirrel, and fox. Divide the children into groups of five, and give each child in the group a different one of the animals. Have them cut out the animal, color it, and paste it to a popsicle stick. Make each possum an additional, big multi-colored tail and fasten it to the possum puppet by a brad.
- Have each group of five come to the front of the room (or story area) to enact the story for the rest of the class. (Having an audience is important.)
- Read the story aloud again and have the students act out the story with their puppets as you read. By the second or third group, students may be supplying lines of dialogue from the story for their own puppets.
- When every group has had a chance to act out the story with their puppets, ask them what they have learned from the story. Ask them again who made up the story – the answer is “The Cherokee.”
- Grades K-2 Take your students to other classrooms, read the story, and have them act it out with their puppets. Let a different group enact the story for each room.
- Grades 3-6 or Middle School: Turn this story into a play for older students. Have them act out the parts with a student narrator. Or students can write additional dialogue for the characters and then act out the play. This can become as elaborate as you wish.
- High School: Use the story as a writing prompt for the following:Retell the story from the point of view of one of the animals.(Meets objectives for narrative, point of view.) Tell about a time when you or someone you know “boasted too much.”What happened to them? (Narrative, characterization)
Compare this story to one of Aesop’s fables. Aesop was a black slave from Africa who lived with a Greek family and told stories that are now about 2500 years old. Cherokee stories are also very old (Compare and contrast).What can we infer about Cherokee values and about Cherokee culture from this story? Draw inferences and then describe in an essay. (Inference)
How to Avoid Stereotypes With This Lesson:
- DO talk about how the Cherokee passed values on to their children through stories.
- DO talk about how the Cherokee and other American Indians learned by observing the natural world. Observation is part of science.
- Do not just teach about the Cherokee at Thanksgiving.
- Do not show animals dressed in American Indian clothing.
- If you are writing dialogue for plays, do not use “early jawbreaker” for example, “Me possum.” Have the animals speak standard conversational English.
- Do not combine stereotypical images from several tribes. The Cherokee were southeastern, woodland Indians who used dugout canoes, lived in wattle-and-daub houses roofed with bark, and farmed. The men fished, hunted, and made war, while the women grew corn, squash, beans, pumpkins, and many other foods that we eat today.
- For more on avoiding stereotypes, visit www.oyate.org
“How the Possum Lost His Tail” told by Freeman Owle
From: Living Stories of the Cherokee, ed. Barbara R. Duncan (Chapel Hill: Univeristy of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. 212–215.)
“How the Possum Lost His Tail”
— as told by Freeman Owle
Many stories were told.
Many stories were teaching stories.
The old story of possum was told
to keep children from bragging and boasting.
The possum was a beautiful creature,
but he didn’t know that.
And one day he was walking out beside the waters
and looked into the very very still waters
and saw a reflection of himself and realized
that his tail was big
and many many colors.
So he began to admire himself,
and he walked by that water all day long
until the wind began to blow.
And then he walked away
and began to boast and brag to the other animals in the forest.
And early every morning
he was out in the center of the forest
and waking all the animals up
to see how beautiful his tail was that day.
Many many days passed,
and they began to get tired of it– of his boasting and bragging
because they knew he was beautiful.
And the fox and the cricket got so tired of it
that they made a plan to put an end to it.
They had a contest set up
in the squaregrounds of the Cherokee the next day
and invited Mr. Possum to come down and participate,
because it was a contest to see who had the most beautiful tail.
And sure, he would do that,
he knew he would win,
and that would be fine.
But they coaxed him into going with them that night
to comb and brush his tail.
And when he went into the cave of the fox,
they began to brush his tail and groom it,
and he began to get a little sleepy.
And as he began to get sleepy,
they brushed a little faster,
and soon Mr. Possum was fast asleep.
being the creature that he is,
began to chew.
And he chewed
off the possum’s tail.
it was not a very pretty tail at that time,
and they tied it up with a piece of deerskin
and tied a beautiful bow on the end of it.
And early next morning
when the possum awakened, he said,
“What did you do to my tail?”
being very upset.
And they said,
“Oh we combed and brushed it so beautifully.
That we felt like we had to wrap it up
so it would not get messed up.”
And so he was in agreement to that,
and he bounced on off to the squaregrounds.
And the animals began to go across the stage.
And you had the skunk
with his beautiful black tail
with a white streak down the middle.
And of course he didn’t smell very good,
but all the people were pleased,
at a distance.
And the other animals crossed the stage,
and the red fox
with his big beautiful orange tail with the black spot on the end.
The possum couldn’t wait any longer,
and he began to get antsy.
So he jumped up on the stage and he said,
“It’s my time, we need to get this thing settled.”
So he said,
“Take the thing off my tail.”
And when they take it off,
all the animals,
and all the people in the audience
began to roll and laugh and giggle.
And he looks back at his tail,
and he sees what they’re laughing about.
He has the most ugly,
that he’s ever seen in his life.
And first he begins to snarl and spit
and become very angry.
But after a little while
they laugh again,
and he can’t stand it any more,
and he rolls over on his back,
and he plays dead.
The old possum boasted too much.
And if you go out today
and find him in your trash cans,
you will see that he begins to snarl
like he’s going to tear you to pieces.
And if you poke him with a little stick,
he ‘ll remember that he boasted too much.
And he’ll roll over onto his back
with all four feet sticking into the air.
And you can pick him up by the tail and carry him back into the forest.
So the teaching of the Cherokee possum story is:
You should let other people tell you that you’re beautiful.
Don’t go around telling everyone else that you are.
From: Living Stories of the Cherokee, ed. Barbara R. Duncan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. 212–215.)