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As eagles soared overhead and a raven kept a watchful eye from a tree branch, members of a Coast Salish first nation on Vancouver Island reburied their lost ancestors.

With the ceremony, which featured a sacred mask dance in their longhouse, a number of songs and prayers, the Tseycum band reinterred the remains of 55 people dug up by a 19th-century archeologist who sold them to museums for as little as $10 each.

"It's been a long time since they've been in the sacred ground they were put in," said Elmer George, a minister from the neighbouring Songhees Nation, who presided over the ceremony. "We ask them for forgiveness for the time they went away ... in a place they were not meant to be."

The bones, some believed to be at least 2,000 years old, were repatriated to the Tseycum this week from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They were unearthed starting in 1898 by famed archeologist Harlan Ingersoll Smith.

The ceremony started at daybreak, with songs and a secret dance that does not even have a name. From the longhouse, the remains were loaded onto trucks and a procession, led by candle bearers and drummers, wound its way to a creek-side burial ground.

Pallbearers carefully laid the remains, held in small cedar caskets, side by side into six graves. When buried, flowers and a single candle adorned each grave, and prayers and songs echoed through the clearing. "I raise my hands to each and every one of you," said an elder as the ceremony drew to a close.

Tseycum Chief Vern Jacks - who, along with his wife, Cora, spearheaded the drive to repatriate the bones - called the ceremony wonderful. "This is where they belong."

Mary Jacks, Chief Jacks's mother, described the journey as an emotional process. She recalled the magnitude of what the band was trying to do during one of the preparatory meetings for the ceremony months ago.

"I was crying, she said, "and I saw my ancestors. I didn't want to cry, but they told me I was picking up their happiness."

Members of several Coast Salish bands were in attendance, many with traditional paint streaked on their faces, meant to ward off spirits while the burial took place.

Also in attendance were a handful of non-aboriginals who raised more than $50,000 to help fund the project.

Ann Saddlemyer said the entire journey had been "very special" and hoped it would lead to further repatriations.

"It's a promise for the future," she said, "and a world that builds many bridges."

The band is also hoping to reclaim bones of the ancestors it believes are currently stored at the Field Museum in Chicago. Chief Jacks has said the band is hoping to persuade officials at the Illinois museum to follow the lead of their New York counterparts.

As that effort is only starting now, any repatriation would be several months away. In the meantime, Mr. George said the Tseycum people know that their ancestors brought back to their traditional territory will have peace.

"This will be the last time they'll be moved."