In 1964, Brand’s attraction to indigenous society combined with his training as a photographer to produce a portable multimedia spectacle, or “ambitious traveling sensorium,” as Markoff called it America needs Indians! At various locations in the Bay Area (a courtyard, a nightclub, an architecture firm…), Brand projected onto two screens photos he took on Indian reservations, as well as images of Central American life. Soundtrack of singing and drums. “One of the first multimedia exhibits to define an emerging American counterculture,” in Markoff’s description, America needs Indians! was featured at one of the Bay Area psychedelic parties that Ken Kesey called his acid tests. The message of the work seems to have been that the audience could learn to emulate the common, rooted, ecstatic life of Native Americans. “For a lot of us — white kids who grew up watching westerns in the ’50s — these revelations came as a lightning bolt,” recalled Phil Lesh, bassist for the Acid Tests’ house band, the Grateful Dead. Brand soon used his networking talent to help Kesey organize a follow-up, the Trips Festival, at San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall.
Brand and Lois Jennings, the half-Ottawa mathematician who would become his first wife, promoted the Trips parties with what Markoff calls “Native American trappings.” Revolutions, whether real or merely imagined, tend to present themselves as a revival of the spirit of an earlier historical period, and in the ’60s and ’70s the real or imagined Cultural Revolution, often referred to as a counterculture, was popularized in Native American societies for this purpose before Wounded Knee. The geographic shift of the counterculture around 1970 away from cities and college towns and towards rural communes only reinforced this tendency for the obvious reason that the indigenous peoples of North America (at least after the abandonment of cities like Cahokia and Tenochtitlan) lived in the countryside rather than in metropolitan areas.
No release flattered this shift back to the country more than this General catalog of the earth, began in 1968 with the crucial help of an inheritance from Brand’s Werbemann father. Consisting of information that is “continuously revised according to the experiences and suggestions of CATALOG users and collaborators”, the publication addressed its readers how to order farm implements and carpentry tools, Volkswagen repair manuals and Carlos Castañeda novels, bamboo flutes, pocket calculators, army surplus jackets and potter’s wheels, and larger “tools” like canoes and geodesic domes, all with the idea of aiding a murky indigenous rural self-sufficiency, somehow modern. It drew inspiration from Aquarian settlements in rural Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere with names like Drop City, Libre and the Lama Foundation, which promised to balance community self-sufficiency and environmental protection. The idea appealed to many more counterculturalists than those who had actually moved to the country, as a vision of the good life – good for you and good for the planet too – that they could one day realize.