In most of the stories involving the rabbit, the Cherokee portrayed them as clever, devious, and the penultimate trickster. The Cherokee rabbit fables are so similar to the “Uncle Remus” and “Brer Rabbit” fables, that I think they must be connected. [refer to my article: Tar Baby vs Tar Wolf]
The Opossum, which is commonly called “possum”, is the only marsupial [carries babies in a pouch] in North America. When born, they are only about the size of honey bees and crawl into the pouch to live their twenty or so sibblings. The term “playing possum” comes from the opossum’s curious defensive tactic to play dead when threatened. In this fable, the Cherokee tell us when the opossum started this ploy.
James Mooney recorded this fable in his book, “Myths of the Cherokee”:
The Rabbit and the Possum each wanted a wife, but no one would marry either of them. They talked over the matter and the Rabbit said, “We can’t get wives here; let’s, go to the next settlement. I’m the messenger for the council, and I’ll tell the people that I bring an order that everybody must take a mate at once, and then we’ll be sure to get our wives.”
The Possum thought this a fine plan, so they started off together to the next town. As the Rabbit traveled faster he got there first and waited outside until the people noticed him and took him into the townhouse. When the chief came to ask his business the Rabbit said he brought an important order from the council that everybody must get married without delay. So the chief called the people together and told them the message from the council. Every animal took a mate at once, and the Rabbit got a wife.
The Possum traveled so slowly that he got there after all the animals had mated, leaving him still without a wife. The Rabbit pretended to feel sorry for him and said, “Never mind, I’ll carry the message to the people in the next settlement, and you hurry on as fast as you can, and this time you will get your wife.”
So he went on to the next town, and the Possum followed close after him. But when the Rabbit got to the townhouse he sent out the word that, as there had been peace so long that everybody was getting lazy the council had ordered that there must be war at once and they must begin right in the townhouse.
So they all began fighting, but the Rabbit made four great leaps and got away just as the Possum came in. Everybody jumped on the Possum, who had not thought of bringing his weapons on a wedding trip, and so could not defend himself. They had nearly beaten the life out of him when he fell over and pretended to be dead until he saw a good chance to jump up and get away. The Possum never got a wife, but he remembers the lesson, and ever since he shuts his eyes and pretends to be dead when the hunter has him in a close corner.