The Grand Council of the Iroquois League is an assembly of 50 sachems (chiefs), a number that has never changed. The seats on the Council are distributed among the Six Nations as follows:
- 14 Onondaga
- 10 Cayuga
- 9 Oneida
- 9 Mohawk
- 8 Seneca
- 0 Tuscarora
When anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan studied the Grand Council in the 19th century, he interpreted it as a central government. This interpretation became influential, but some scholars have since argued that while the Grand Council served an important ceremonial role, it was not a government in the sense that Morgan thought.
According to this view, Iroquois political and diplomatic decisions were made on the local level, and were based on assessments of community consensus; a central government that dictates policy to the people at large is not the Iroquois model of government.
Unanimity in public acts was essential to the Council. In 1855, Minnie Myrtle observed that no Iroquois treaty was binding unless it was ratified by 75% of the male voters and 75% of the mothers of the nation. In revising Council laws and customs, a consent of two-thirds of the mothers was required.
The women held real power, particularly the power to veto treaties or declarations of war. The members of the Grand Council of Sachems were chosen by the mothers of each clan, and if any leader failed to comply with the wishes of the women his tribe and the Great Law of Peace, he could be demoted by the mothers of his clan, a process called “knocking off the horns” which removed the deer antlers emblem of leadership from his headgear and returned him to private life. Councils of the mothers of each tribe were held separately from the men’s councils. Men were employed by the women as runners to send word of their decisions to concerned parties, or a woman could appear at the men’s council as an orator, presenting the view of the women. Women often took the initiative in suggesting legislation.