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Donovan Adolph of Stl’atl’imx Nation performs a dance during a ceremony to commemorate the 150th anniversary of six chiefs hanged in Quesnel, B.C., on Sunday.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

On a grey, bone-chilling day commemorating the hanging of a group of aboriginal chiefs in British Columbia 150 years ago, pounding drums and singing voices heralded new beginnings and brighter times.

About 200 people gathered in a tiny grass field overlooking the Fraser River in Quesnel to honour five Tsilhqot'in Nation chiefs who were hanged at that spot on Oct. 26, 1864. A sixth chief was hanged the following year in New Westminster, near Vancouver.

The chiefs were killed during a bloody dispute known as the Chilcotin War. Three days before Sunday's ceremony, B.C.'s premier apologized for the hangings and exonerated the six men a century and a half after their deaths.

"These warriors, when their lives were taken, it gave our nation an identity," Tsilhqot'in Chief Joe Alphonse told Sunday's gathering.

"It's our version of Remembrance Day today. How we look at the province of British Columbia is affected by these guys. It's led us to here."

A small plaque that was placed in the middle of the field 15 years ago serves as the only official marker of where the five chiefs were hanged and buried.

The chiefs' execution is part of a long history of conflict between the Tsilhqot'in and the government. The most recent chapter saw the Tsilhqot'in fight a long-running legal battle that ended earlier this year with a landmark decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, which for the first time awarded the band title to their territory.

The six chiefs were hanged after the colonial government in B.C. approved a toll road from Bute Inlet on the coast to Barkerville in the Cariboo gold fields. But the Tsilhqot'in, decimated by smallpox and fiercely protective of their homeland, mounted a resistance.

It began in April 1864, and by the end of the following month, 19 road builders and a farmer were dead.

Government militia failed to capture the chiefs, but the chiefs came out of hiding when they received overtures to speak with the government.

They were arrested and tried for murder and hanged.

Two hundred and fifty people witnessed the hangings in Quesnel in 1864. The sixth chief was hanged later in New Westminster, the former capital of B.C.

The road was never built.

"They gave us hope for a better future," said Alphonse, who told the gathering the spirit of the defiant chiefs was always present during the Tsilhqot'in's legal wars to protect what they consider their territory.

"We have fought in court, and we sit there day after day hearing professional, or so-called professionals, try to dismiss us as a people," he said.

In June of this year, the Tsilhqot'in, who live in the Cariboo-Chilcotin plateau area west of Williams Lake, won a historic Supreme Court of Canada land rights case that gave them title to 1,700 square miles of land in the remote Nemiah Valley, making them the first aboriginal band in Canada to win title to their territory.

B.C.'s aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister John Rustad said the poor weather on Sunday reflected the history of cold relations between governments and the Tsilhqot'in. But he said the time had arrived to move forward.

Late last week, Premier Christy Clark apologized for the hangings and exonerated the chiefs. Last month, Clark became the first B.C. premier to visit the Nemiah Valley, where she signed an agreement with the Tsilhqot'in to work together on social and economic initiatives.

"Today we stand here at the crossroads of history," said Rustad.

Poor weather cancelled Clark's flight from Vancouver and she couldn't attend Sunday's event.

Tsilhqot'in Chief Roger William, who has been battling governments for 25 years, said the hanged chiefs have passed on their legacy as protectors of the land for generations.

William attended the ceremony wearing a full head-to-toe beaded buckskin jacket and pants and moccasins he said his mother used 17 deer hides to make.

"The history of the Tsilhqot'in warriors has been passed down for generations," he said.

"That is why today is so important. We know what happened in history. Now it's in front of us. We want to take these steps and move forward. When you recognize the first peoples of this country only then will B.C. and Canada prosper."